The Obama Republican Party

The Obama Republican Party

This spring, one of the favorite topics of analytical pieces and blog posts is the relative strength or weakness of the Tea Party movement. I’ve participated in that ink-fest, too.

When Senator Mitch McConnell handily won his primary fight, some suggested that it was proof that the Tea Party movement was on life support. Indeed, it seemed for a time that Tea Party challenges to incumbent Republican legislators were full of sound and fury but signified nothing.

Then, on June 10, Professor David Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. A politically (and financially) diminutive David felled Goliath with a single pitched stone, said some: immigration reform.

Of course, there was much more to the race than immigration. Many have suggested that Representative Cantor had grown distant from his home district. The fascinations of politics in the Beltway, and Mr. Cantor’s obvious interest in institutional power, had meant that he spent less time at home. Meanwhile, redistricting had made his solid Republican district even more solid . . . and even more conservative.

Even Representative Cantor’s pollster was out of touch. He predicted a whopping 34% margin of victory for the majority leader, who lost by 10%. That’s way outside the margin of error.

Of course, as with any election, multiple interpretations are possible and defensible. Something clearly had broken down in the representative/represented relationship, and the majority leader paid the price.

Such mixed electoral results (including the continuing battle between Senator Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel in Mississippi) invite a larger conversation about what is happening in the Republican Party.

Chris Cillizza, in a blog for the Washington Post, argues that the division in today’s Republican Party can be understood best as a struggle over the size of government. Establishment Republicans want a smaller government, but will work to get that incrementally. Tea Party Republicans want a much smaller government, and they want it now.

One group will negotiate to find a way to keep government working, holding back the Democratic impulse toward more government as best they can. One will do anything to stop the growth, now, even if it means shutting the government down.

This change in the division within the Republican Party from one driven by social/moral issues to one driven by questions of the size and function of government is attributed by Mr. Cillizza to the work of the Obama White House. Whether it’s the recovery efforts early in his first term or the passage of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s team is viewed by Tea Party Republicans as having crossed some invisible line of government expansionism and must be pushed back at all costs.

“We are now operating in the Obama Republican Party,” GOP consultant Jon Lerner is quoted as saying.

I think this analysis is helpful and generally on target. There still are social conservatives fighting for their candidates (as in Mississippi), but the strongest voices in the Tea Party movement, elected and activist alike, are not focused on social issues as much as they are on fiscal ones.


But there’s another dimension to the Obama Republican Party that should be recognized and considered.

It’s personal.

The level of antipathy for President Obama in the Tea Party movement . . . for the man, not just his policies . . . appears to provide much of the fuel for the Tea Party’s passion. President Obama has, I think rightly, concluded that attaching his name to anything is the worst thing he can do for any legislation’s prospects. It’s that personal.

It’s not just about the ideas. It’s about the man.

Ironically, another president, this one a Republican, engendered similarly deep and enduring animosity in a segment of the population.  Much of that population, interestingly, lived in the same region of the country that is home to a large proportion of the Tea Party movement.

Long after he had passed from political office, this individual’s name could elicit frank expressions of hatred from these citizens. For years, American politics was defined, in part, by his policies, but in part by his persona.

His name was Abraham Lincoln.

I’m not suggesting that President Obama will be Lincoln-esque in the view of history.

I am suggesting that one doesn’t really understand the politics of the South in the late 19th century if one doesn’t appreciate the personal hatred for a president. And, in a similar way, I don’t believe one understands contemporary Republican politics if one doesn’t appreciate the personal hatred for our current president by many who vote with Tea Party sympathy.