When political parties lose after a bitterly fought electoral battle, they prefer to lick their wounds in private. The glare of publicity is not helpful in exploring what went wrong and charting a fresh course. The Republicans, however, find their election postmortem taking place in the full public gaze. When it comes to the most urgent issue confronting the nation, the fiscal cliff, they face an invidious choice. They must decide by Dec. 31 whether to persist in the stance they adopted at the election, saving the ultra-rich from higher taxation, or to raise taxes on all Americans. If they hold firm, they will be blamed for levying $1,200 a year on every middle-class family. That is not good news for the party of low taxation.
If their fiscal cliff dilemma were not bad enough, since the slaughter of the schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, Republicans are set to defend a challenge to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Concerned, angry Americans are asking why lawmakers have failed to protect them and their children from arbitrary execution. The Republican leadership must now choose whether to join the president in finding a way to avoid similar massacres or face the electoral consequences. If they get that pivotal decision wrong, they risk being cast as cold-hearted villains, out of touch with the moderate voters they need to win back the White House and the Senate.
Little wonder that Republicans backed by the National Rifle Association have made themselves scarce. Finding a Republican legislator to appear on camera to defend the status quo is as hard as finding someone to argue that hard drug dealers perform a valuable public service. NBC’s Meet the Press contacted all 31 NRA-backed senators for comment, and every last one kept his head below the barricade.
Failure to control guns is an overwhelmingly Republican issue. Of the 10 senators awarded an A-plus rating by the NRA, just one is a Democrat, Max Baucus of Montana. Of the 32 the NRA gives an A grade, six are Democrats: Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Mark Warner of Virginia. So far all six A-grade Democrats have acknowledged that the Newtown massacre demands a rethink on gun laws. By contrast, all the A and A-plus Republicans except Roy Blunt and Kelly Ayotte have kept schtum.
The deep Republican fissures — between conservatives and libertarians, between movement conservatives and pragmatists, between the religious right and secularists, between fiscal hawks and economic moderates — are not easy to pinpoint because of the hold the Tea Party and pressure groups like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity have over the party and its leadership. Those who once learned to bargain in the corridors and lobbies of Capitol Hill to further the conservative cause are now obliged to keep their thoughts to themselves, mouth the mantra of conformity, and sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax-increases pledge or defend themselves in a hostile primary. Those who did not heed the threats include big beasts of the party Richard Lugar, Arlen Specter, Robert F. Bennett and Olympia Snowe. The Tea Party types who took their place – Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Ken Buck – were all rejected by voters in November.
The GOP is a once-pragmatic party that has become dogmatic, with those who consider conservative principles to be absolute steadily driving out those whose views reflect the changing public will. The notion laid down by the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, that “all government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter” has given way to the unbending creed of the libertarian shrew Ayn Rand, who believed that “there are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” As all elections are won and lost in the center ground, hewing to principles however unpopular is a recipe for remaining in permanent opposition.
In the aftermath of the 2012 defeat, Republicans who thirst for power rather than wallow in the impotence of ideological purity had hoped to jettison part of the absolutist platform. Peggy Noonan, the grande dame of reasonable conservatism, made a plea for new thinking and tolerance of dissent in a piece illustrated with a GOP elephant whose mouth was gagged. “Republicans are now in the habit of editing their views,” she wrote. “The Bush White House suppressed dissent; talk-radio stars functioned as enforcers; the angrier parts of the base, on the Internet, attempted to silence critical thinkers. … Enough!” But her appeal for reason was overtaken by events; Adam Lanza went on the rampage, and movement Republicans began digging themselves deeper into a hole.
The impending battle in Congress over guns ensures that the broad policy reappraisal Noonan and others hoped for will be postponed, perhaps indefinitely. The failure of Republicans in Congress to respond to the tragic events in Newtown suggests that the vote will be strictly partisan, with the GOP holding out against the popular demand to address the issue with an open mind. It is widely acknowledged by moderate Republicans that their party’s similarly divisive policies on immigration, gay marriage, fiscal continence, low taxation, women’s rights, abortion, contraception, access to the ballot, entitlements, healthcare and the whole panoply of intolerance the GOP champions cannot be maintained if they are to offer voters a credible alternative in 2016.
This is bad news for rising stars like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was quick to volunteer a more benign policy toward illegal immigrants and has put his presidential ambitions at risk by proposing “a serious and comprehensive study of our laws to find new and better ways to prevent any more mass shootings.” And the GOP’s most gifted retail politician, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, has damaged himself, perhaps terminally, by hugging not only the middle ground but President Barack Obama, too. In little more than 10 minutes, the Newtown shooter not only brought 26 lives to a premature close, he may also have snuffed out the chances of a Republican revival.
Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist.