One question you don't hear asked too often in American politics is: "Are you a Republican, or are you a conservative?"
For a generation now, being a Republican has generally meant being a conservative. And through most of that time, in most of the 50 states, that equation of meaning has been a winner for the GOP.
In marketing, you would call it brand identity. And Republican candidates and campaign experts have sold it with great effectiveness — beginning with Ronald Reagan's ascendancy in 1980.
But success, over time, brings certain strains. And great political success — such as the full control of the White House and both chambers of Congress that Republicans have enjoyed since 2002 — brings great political strains.
What is amazing about the current tensions within the Republican Party is not that they are happening, but that they have taken so long. The natural tensions pulling Republicans apart include regional differences and disagreements over issues. But they also include a fundamental divide between the interests of party and principle.
The concerns of the party are always about power. A successful party is defined by the pursuit, achievement and maintenance of power. The concerns of principle are always about larger things: ideas and ideals more than specific policies or the dictates of individual careers.
Sooner or later, these concerns diverge. The party loyalists think about defending the offices they have won. The principle loyalists cling to their ideology and their big goals, despising compromise and insisting on confrontation with the outside forces of resistance even when the odds are unfavorable. Better to lose in the good fight than to make a deal that cuts your losses.
Divergence of this kind has been on display throughout 2005, as Republicans have struggled to make full use of their power position. This is the first second-term Republican administration that's had full Republican control of Congress since 1929. Expectations were high. President Bush talked of overhauling Social Security and the tax code and the immigration laws — a trifecta of daunting tasks. As might have been predicted, complications and distractions arose. And now the defenders of party and of principle are at odds.
The most visible division of the moment is the contretemps over President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. This is a real and important wound, and it is not likely to heal. If Miers is confirmed, it will fester with every court decision that rankles the right. If she is not confirmed, the bitterness between Bush loyalists and certain movement conservatives will be just as enduring.
But as important as the Miers split is, Republicans and conservatives are facing a more fundamental threat to their unity on the other side of the Capitol. In the House, the budget process has been reopened for the first time in nearly 30 years, and a second budget resolution is pending this week. This has been done because the costs of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina have thrown the original spending plan for fiscal 2006 way out of whack.
House Republican leaders' prescription was to absorb the emergency spending into the annual deficit, which has been coming down lately as Treasury receipts have improved. That would keep new tax cuts on track (a political plus) without necessitating deep new budget cuts (a political negative). No sense rocking the boat for the 2006 midterm elections. Iraq and gasoline prices and a host of smaller issues will be burden enough for Republican incumbents in marginal districts next year.
But then came the revolt of the Republican Study Conference, the stalwarts on the right who think the Katrina crisis can be read as an opportunity. Why not take this chance to cut tens of billions of spending, showing that the Republicans are not the "big government conservatives" they've been accused of being. Why not show that to govern means to choose?
The RSC under Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) has asserted itself this year, especially in the weeks since Tom DeLay stepped aside as House Majority Leader (due to his indictment in Texas). Its latest cause is an "Operation Offset," by which Katrina's costs would be borne by spending cuts elsewhere — including $50 billion in programs (student loans, Medicaid, food stamps and so on) and a later percentage cut across the board in everything except defense.
The House Republican leaders went along, in part because the RSC now includes more than a third of the House GOP rank and file. But they found they could not count on enough Republicans to back this offset plan — in the face of unanimous Democratic opposition — and so the open-heart surgery on the budget has been delayed yet another week.
Pence & Company dispute the idea that offsets would cost the party politically. They insist that Republicans win when they stand foursquare on principle, including the party's traditional low-tax and tight-rein fiscal profile. But if there is a price to be paid for this stand, these conservatives are willing to pay it. And proudly so.
And that's what sets them apart from the party loyalists who don't want to jeopardize their majority with votes that unite and empower Democrats and make Republicans look out of touch with the mood and priorities of the public at large.