, Salem, MA


January 12, 2013

Shribman: Identity crisis in the GOP

Let’s start with two unavoidable truths: The country’s fiscal crisis has not been addressed, and the battle to redefine the Republican Party will occur long before any presidential candidates land in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Congress addressed barely a fraction of the economic conditions it was hired to fix. The battle over spending has yet to begin — and the one about entitlements hasn’t even been engaged.

The struggle over the future of the Republican Party? It won’t wait until campaigning for the caucuses on the prairies and the primary in the mountains three years from now.

Republicans may be talking wistfully about Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal, but the fact that I have to tell you Jindal is the governor of Louisiana tells you how premature — how beside the point — the presidential speculation is.

The GOP problem has many dimensions. One is that a dozen Republicans voted against the re-election of their own speaker. One is that that speaker was rendered irrelevant by his own caucus during the December drama over the fiscal cliff. Another is that the Republican caucus in the 113th Congress may be even more militant than the one in the last Congress.

But there is more. The division between the Republicans’ isolationists and neoconservatives has never been addressed, let alone healed, and the nomination of former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary will likely exacerbate those tensions. The other division in the party — the one between regulars and tea partiers — is far deeper and far more significant than the GOP split of the last generation, between religious conservatives and economic conservatives.

That division may have grown in the past week, with the swearing-in of new lawmakers who received big contributions in their teacups for the fall election. These legislators would have voted against the fiscal cliff legislation — and would have added to the chorus of those criticizing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, increasingly the symbol of fecklessness and compromise, two words melded in meaning in the capital in recent years.

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