The first day of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s postelection conference had wrapped. Its attendees zoomed up the semi-private elevator to the W Hotel’s deck, greeted by two open bars and cocktail-snack tables that included pita bread, sushi, and structurally innovative marshmallows that looked, from a short distance, like tofu. The crowd was fairly thin—some of the foreign-policy hawks who typically come to the event had been tied up by the ground-breaking of the George W. Bush library—which made it easy to spot FreedomWorks director of state campaigns Brendan Steinhauser.
Steinhauser worked harder than almost anyone in America to power the Tea Party’s takeover of the GOP. If a story was coming out of the conference that day, it was that the Tea Party was threatening the interest of the GOP’s conservative wing, represented by groups like FPI. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told his audience that he worried about Kentucky Republican Senator-elect Rand Paul’s agenda, and about isolationism in the GOP.
Of course, some of the people responsible for electing those “isolationists” were right there at FPI’s event, wondering what the fuss was about. Former McCain adviser and current Sarah Palin adviser Randy Scheunemann took the stage later to dismiss “lazy reporting” about new Republican isolationists, with “virtually no evidence supporting this thesis.”
Steinhauser agreed with him. “You don’t see isolationism from these new members,” he said. “Jacksonian is the word I’ve been using.” The new GOP class included two dozen military veterans. Perusing their campaign speeches and Web sites, there was no evidence of any disagreements with hawks like, say, John McCain, other than disagreement over what could be cut in the defense budget.
The incoming Republican majority in the House and the Tea-stained Republican caucus in the Senate are being portrayed as large and unwieldy, ready to be split by debates over foreign policy and social issues. It’s an irresistible story. It’s just not true yet. Not even the people who spark the debates think they’re setting off a massive intraconservative battle.
“There is no real civil war,” says Chris Barron, the chairman of the board of the publicity-savvy gay Republican group GOProud. “The new Congress won’t be focusing on social issues.”
Barron can talk. After the election, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said “[Y]ou can’t be a fiscal conservative and not a social conservative,” a line he’d used at gatherings of religious activists. GOProud responded with an open letter co-signed by 14 Tea Party activists asking Republicans to “resist the urge to run down any social issue rabbit holes.”
It was a shot across the bow—sort of. Today, Barron frets a little about the bad old GOP that “wasted time on Janet Jackson’s nipple and Terri Schiavo.” But neither he nor any other Tea Party activist is sounding the alarm about social conservative legislation that could split the re-fused conservative movement.
“I don’t see the Republicans being dumb enough to chase social issues,” says Andrew Ian Dodge, a Maine Tea Party leader who signed the GOProud letter. “All we were trying to do was stiffen their backbones.”
That’s really all conservatives with liberal social views can do. It’s true that the new GOP coalition is far more economics-focused than the last few GOP majorities. That’s what a crippling recession will do to a political movement. Beyond that, the GOP coalition is as socially conservative and as hawkish on foreign policy as it ever was.
The indispensable religion and politics reporter Sarah Posner has been fairly lonely in pointing out that survey data show more than half of Tea Partiers—those new Republican recruits who supposedly don’t care about social issues—identifying with the religious right. For example, at least two-thirds of Tea Partiers oppose abortion; the new, Mike Castle-less Republican majority in the House is, with a handful of exceptions, pro-life. *
“In the current reporting environment,” wrote Posner, “figures like [Michele] Bachmann are portrayed as tea partiers first, and then the reporter looks beneath for the religion.”
In order for there to be a real split in the new GOP, something bigger than a fight for attention or some backbone-stiffening, there needs to be a disagreement on some issue big enough to distract the party from its mission. It needs to be a big enough distraction to make Republicans, Tea Partiers, libertarians, evangelicals, Bo Derek, and everyone else temporarily pause the war on Barack Obama’s policies.
So far, nothing is playing that role. GOProud’s nagging approach to the what-should-Republicans-do debate doesn’t actually demand that the party change its position on any policies. (GOProud supports “don’t ask, don’t tell” reform, for example, but that’s not on the Republican agenda if it isn’t passed in the lame-duck session.) Instead, it’s gone after the groups that are protesting a GOProud presence at CPAC 2011, the annual conservative conference, by accusing them of being insufficiently conservative on immigration, Trojan Horsers who want amnesty.
Of course, all of these debates are happening in what’s supposed to be the GOP’s honeymoon period. Is it possible that, in 2011, some social issue bubbles up out of nowhere, or some Republican introduces social legislation that offends those noble swing voters who gave the GOP a chance this time? Sure, that’s sort of what happened with the Terri Schiavo mess. And that’s mostly what the economic conservatives are worried about.
But a real fight between the GOP and its new members? A split on foreign policy? A split on social issues? That’s not going to happen as long as Barack Obama is president. The Tea Party isn’t presenting some infinite challenge that threatens what the GOP establishment does. The Tea Party won its battles with Republicans because its beliefs and priorities were the ones most Republicans had in the first place.
For example. Andrew Ian Dodge remembers a pair of meetings he came to D.C. for, to meet Tea Party activists. The first, early in the movement, was partly about social issues. “About 10 of the questions that day were about social issues,” he remembers. After the midterms, though, Dodge returned to D.C. for a Tea Party Patriots meeting/orientation for new members. There was only one question about social issues that time, even though there were more people in the room. When most conservatives say that they need a “three-legged stool” of social, foreign-policy, and economic issues, they mean it deeply enough that—once they win—they don’t even need to discuss it.
Correction, Dec. 1, 2010: This article originally stated that without Rep. Mike Castle, the new House majority would be “entirely pro-life.” A handful of representatives serving in the next Congress are pro-choice. (Return to the corrected sentence.)