Thinking of the divisions within the center-right as a conflict between the Republican establishment and Tea Party insurgents is problematic for understanding what is wrong (and what is right) in contemporary conservative politics. The Republican establishment and the Tea Party insurgents each have their distinctive virtues and vices. The Republican establishment at least gives lip service to the idea of winning over the median voter even as the establishment is obsessed with the politically self-defeating goal of expanding low-skill immigration. The Tea Party has replaced some time servers with politicians that have some claim to principle even as some Tea Partiers have shown a fondness for self-defeating apocalyptic struggles like the doomed attempt to defund Obamacare by shutting down other parts of the government. But while the participants in the struggle between establishment Republicans and insurgents focus on their differences, their similarities are at least as important.
Everyone remembers Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% crack where he labeled the 47% of the population with no net income tax liability as parasites who could not be convinced to take responsibility for their own lives. But who was Romney and to whom was Romney speaking? Romney was, in terms of money and endorsements, the establishment’s candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination. Romney was talking (he thought unrecorded) to a group of wealthy donors. This was ground zero of the Republican establishment. The Republican establishment’s business group allies say their 2014 mantra is going to be “No fools on our ticket.” The establishment should be careful, because foolishness shows up in the most unexpected places. So that means the 47% thing was an establishment problem right?
Not so fast. The 47% meme didn’t start with Romney. It was originally popularized by Erick Erickson’s “We Are the 53%” tumblr. People would hold up messages explaining how they were in the 53% of people who had a net income tax liability because they worked hard and showed personal responsibility. Romney just took what was implicit in this message (that people in the 47% were lazy irresponsible losers) and made it explicit. So was the 47% crack (and the poisonous thinking that led to it) a Tea Party problem or a Republican establishment problem? That’s the wrong question. The problem is staring both factions in the mirror.
The same issue shows up in tax policy. During the same remarks where he slandered the 47%, Romney pointed out that his tax plan had nothing for people with no net income tax liability (though they might have a positive payroll tax liability). He might have added that his tax plan would have done little enough for people just at the median. It goes without saying that Romney’s tax plan would have sharply cut marginal tax rates on high-earners. Tea Party Senator Rand Paul’s tax plan would cut taxes on high-earners even more sharply while raising taxes on working parents who are at, or just under the median income. So is this prioritizing of cutting marginal tax rates on high-earners a Tea Party problem or an establishment problem? Wrong question.
The good news is that what is best in the Republican establishment also overlaps with what is best in the Tea Party. Nobody is more establishment that former congressional staffer and former Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels. As governor of Indiana, Daniels cut spending, cut taxes, balanced the state budget, improved public services and showed how a combination of catastrophic health insurance and health savings accounts could maintain people’s health care security while increasing their take-home pay. Nobody is more Tea Party than freshman Utah Senator Mike Lee. He defeated defeated incumbent Republican Senator Bob Bennett and Lee was (unfortunately) a leader of the failed Obama care shutdown strategy. But more importantly, Lee has focused on pro-middle-class, pro-parent and pro-upward mobility policies like expanding the child tax credit, and making it easier for workers to get the training and credentials they need to get higher-paying jobs.
It doesn’t much matter whether the Republican establishment or the Tea Party prevails if our only choices are Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. Both are insufficient to our predicament. A center-right that works would be a synthesis of what is best in the Republican establishment and what is best in the Tea Party insurgency. The institutional Republican party (like the Republican National Committee) should not be choosing between contending Republican candidates. It should be making sure that the eventual Republican nominees (of whatever faction) have the tools to defeat their liberal opponents. As we shall see, the ability the institutional Republican party to carry out these core functions has badly eroded relative to the other party.