GOP Establishment and the Tea Party: Ships Passing in the Night

Reading the responses to the president’s State of the Union speech by Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Rand Paul, one might be fooled into thinking that the regular Republican Party — represented by Rubio — and the Tea Party — represented by Paul — were in agreement on 90% of the issues facing the country.

On the surface, there is much truth to that idea. But the differences between establishment Republicans and conservative activists go far beyond where each side stands on the issues of the day. The cleavage starts with differences in temperament, and extends to matters of the heart: passion, commitment, and feelings of resentment and betrayal that currently make a marriage between the two wings of the Republican Party impossible to achieve.

There are also differences in vision. Rubio’s pragmatic view of Washington is in conflict with Paul’s more combative outlook on the role of government in society. And on the specific issue of the sequester, Rubio takes the mainstream Republican position that other cuts can be substituted — especially for defense spending — while Paul is of a mind to allow the $1.2 trillion in cuts to stand, even if it means degrading our military capabilities.

Instead of convergence, you have divergence. Instead of unity, you have the real possibility of an all-out civil war that has the potential to blow up Republican chances to maintain control of the House and take control of the Senate in 2014. Beyond that, unless some way can be found to heal the rift, a serious effort to run a third-party candidate for president in 2016 is on the horizon — especially if another “moderate” candidate is chosen by establishment Republicans.

But Tuesday’s responses to the State of the Union by the two men offers some hope that common ground can be found if there is a willingness demonstrated by both sides to subsume the personal and concentrate on the political.

Placing those responses side by side, it is remarkable how they complement each other. Both offer a solid defense of the free market and how economic prosperity, and not government, can help the middle class:

PAUL: What America needs is not Robin Hood but Adam Smith. In the year we won our independence, Adam Smith described what creates the Wealth of Nations.

He described a limited government that largely did not interfere with individuals and their pursuit of happiness.

All that we are, all that we wish to be is now threatened by the notion that you can have something for nothing, that you can have your cake and eat it too, that you can spend a trillion dollars every year that you don’t have.

RUBIO: This opportunity – to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life – it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs.

Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.

Both men have similar notions of how to reform education:

PAUL: A great education needs to be available for everyone, whether you live on country club lane or in government housing.

This will only happen when we allow school choice for everyone, rich or poor, white, brown, or black.

Let the taxes you pay for education follow each and every student to the school of your choice.

RUBIO: Helping the middle class grow will also require an education system that gives people the skills today’s jobs entail and the knowledge that tomorrow’s world will require.

We need to incentivize local school districts to offer more advanced placement courses and more vocational and career training.

We need to give all parents, especially the parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice.

Surprisingly, both claim to embrace immigrants and at least give lip service to some kind of a path to citizenship:

PAUL: We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities.

We must be the party that says, “If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you.”

RUBIO: We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest. We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.

Is there enough commonality between the two sides to suggest a meeting of the minds to heal the breach — at least enough that threats to “primary” incumbents and attempts to prevent Tea Party candidates from winning would subside and a tolerance for each other’s views would replace acrimony and distrust?

If the two sides could get their act together and come up with a coherent message, recent polls suggest the American people are willing to listen. A recent Pew Poll showed that a whopping 73% of the American people believe that “Washington does the right thing” only some of the time or never. And Gallup found a broad distrust of government in December, with 64% saying they fear big government more than they do big business or big labor.

However, any kind of reconciliation is probably not going to happen. As a matter of temperament, there is a vast difference between the two sides. The Tea Party does not trust the establishment Republicans, believing they don’t “fight” the Democrats hard enough. In essence, the Tea Party  thinks that establishment Republicans do not stand fast on “principle” and thus allow the Democrats to run roughshod over the party. The establishment, on the other hand, sees the Tea Party as too rigid, too uncompromising, too politically naive to govern.

But it’s actually more basic than that. What makes the establishment and Tea Party ships passing in the night is a different vision of the role of government in society.

PAUL: Ronald Reagan said, government is not the answer to the problem, government is the problem.

Tonight, the President told the nation he disagrees. President Obama believes government is the solution: More government, more taxes, more debt.

RUBIO:: Now does this mean there’s no role for government? Of course not. It plays a crucial part in keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life. But government’s role is wisely limited by the Constitution. And it can’t play its essential role when it ignores those limits.

It is inaccurate to say the Tea Party is “anti-government,” although there is certainly a faction within the Tea Party that is. The establishment sees the Tea Party as wanting to put government in a strait jacket, limited in what it can do based on a severely restrictive view of the Constitution. The Tea Party believes the establishment, in embracing the basic idea of the welfare state, is little better than the Democratic Party — indeed, their favorite pejorative is to refer to pragmatists as “Democrat-lites” — and that a sharper and more pronounced distinction between the two parties is a key to victory at the polls. This includes the radical notion that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, as well as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, should be rolled back — even eliminated.

Those ships passing in the night are exchanging broadsides over the question of what the term “limited government” means in a modern 21st century, industrial democracy. Despite agreement on a wide range of issues, there will be no reconciliation as long as neither side is willing to alter their fundamental beliefs when it comes to Constitutional limits on government. Both sides believe in limits on government power. But the pragmatists recognize the reality that those limits should be broad enough to encompass those things a modern state must do; “keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life,” as Rubio put it. The other side sees a far more limited role for government and, to varying degrees, rejects the idea that government programs for the poor and government regulation of business are even constitutional.

It hardly matters who is “right.” What’s important is that the competing visions of government’s role is keeping the two sides apart. And that is not likely to change anytime soon.