Outgoing House speaker John Boehner’s willingness to do a budget deal with America’s ruling Democrats has once again exposed a divide between “establishment” Republicans like him and the purist Freedom Caucus, a Tea Party-backed minority.
But David Wasserman argues at FiveThirtyEight that it isn’t entirely accurate to see the battle in the Republican Party as one between two factions. “It’s more useful to view its members on a spectrum,” he writes.
On one end are those most willing to back up the chamber’s leaders and cast tough votes for spending bills needed to keep the government open. On the other are the unwilling rebels most aligned with ideological groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth who are adamant about the need for spending cuts. A large group of members are scattered in between.
By looking at a number of key votes, Wasserman finds that only eighty members can reasonably be called loyalists: those who vote with the leadership all or almost all of the time. In the middle are around a hundred Republicans who have voted with Boehner and his team half the time. Another 36 — many of them Freedom Caucus members — are true agitators and have rejected all of Boehner’s compromises.
According to Wasserman, those in the middle vote with the leadership just enough of the time to jockey for plum committee assignments but occasionally rebel in order to shield themselves from right-wing Tea Party challenges in the primaries.
Boehner, fed up with the machinations of the purists in his party who wouldn’t take a deal if it gave them 90 percent of what they wanted, announced his resignation from Congress last month. Now that the Freedom Caucus can no longer threaten to unseat him, the veteran legislator is free to pursue a much-needed fiscal deal with President Barack Obama’s party that would keep the government open and funded through next year’s general election.
Republicans most recently shut down the government in 2013 when they refused, for more than two weeks, to support a budget that didn’t defund Obama’s signature health reforms.
It weren’t just Tea Party extremists refusing to budge. The Reuters news agency estimated at the time that up to 70 percent of House Republicans supported the hardline strategy — which got them nowhere.
Congressmen and -women endorsed by Tea Party organizations made up a third of the Republican caucus at the time. Another 160 members got high rates from the Club for Growth, a small-government lobbying group.
Republican members of Congress — especially those in the lower chamber who must stand for reelection every two years — have gradually become more conservative through the years.
The upside, as FiveThirtyEight pointed out earlier, is that House Republicans have seldom been more united. In nine out of ten cases, they vote the same way.
The problem is those one in ten cases where Republicans must compromise with Democrats or risk a government shutdown or worse: sovereign default. The party’s ideological homogeneity leaves little room for concessions. The most centrist Republican today is likely to be more right-wing than the most conservative congressman a generation or two ago.
Similarly, there are few genuine centrists left on the Democratic side.
This is due to changes in the electorate. The Pew Research Center has found that 92 percent of Republican voters are now to the right of the median Democrat while 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican. Just twenty years ago, the figures were 64 and 70 percent, respectively.
Together with a gerrymandering of House districts that put only around four dozen of the 435 seats in play in last year’s congressional elections, this makes it very hard for the two parties to work together anymore.