It wasn't so long ago that the Republican Party enjoyed a reputation as a disciplined political machine that enacted its agenda with the efficiency of a scalpel, dividing hapless Democrats on issues ranging from tax cuts to gun control. Operating under the 11th Commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican"), the GOP could sit back and enjoy the spectacle of an opponent scattered by discord and narrow self-interest, giving birth to the oft-used headline "Democrats in Disarray."
But as the two parties approach a showdown over the debt ceiling, it appears the tables have turned. At first, Republicans emerged from the fight over the Bush tax cuts united under a single banner: They would not agree to lift the debt ceiling unless it was accompanied by spending cuts, and spending cuts alone. But this week, two moderate GOP senators — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — came out publicly against the party line, arguing that the debt ceiling is far too important for the economy's health to be used as leverage in a budget battle. Their remarks echoed what President Obama said in a press conference earlier this week: "The full faith and credit of the United States economy is not a bargaining chip."
Murkowski and Collins are not alone. Influential conservative publications — including National Review and The Wall Street Journal — have urged the GOP to remove the threat of a debt default from budget talks.
In addition, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that a solid majority of Americans — 58 percent — oppose connecting the debt ceiling to spending cuts. Only 22 percent of respondents said they would accept a debt default or even a partial government shutdown if Republicans and Democrats failed to reach a compromise on budget cuts. In other words, the GOP's message is not resonating with voters. And Obama now leads the GOP leadership by 14 points when it comes to whom the public trusts more to handle the debt ceiling issue, according to ABC News and The Washington Post.
Still, there are Republicans in the House who would rather see the country go into default. The deep divisions on fiscal policy, combined with a weak speaker, has left the party adrift and demoralized, reports Jake Sherman at Politico:
House Republicans — who start their annual retreat in Williamsburg, Va., on Wednesday — are facing something of a conundrum: They have the majority but don't know what to do with it…
The leadership has yet to cobble together anything resembling an agenda, and their members are complaining about what they describe as poor messaging. Right now, House Republicans don’t know how to challenge Obama and whether it’s even worth the fight.
Republicans have also been operating entirely on the defensive against Obama, which worries many lawmakers. [Politico]
As Sherman notes, the discord is a symptom of a party undergoing an identity crisis that may take years to play out. In the meantime, what's the GOP to do? It may have been a miscalculation to take a hard stand on the debt ceiling, which amounts to playing with the biggest stick of dynamite in the bag. There will be other budget battles in the next few weeks — over deep spending cuts known as sequestration, and legislation financing the government — that could provide more palatable positions to rally around.