January 17, 2013 11:14 pm

Republican party: Signs of pragmatism bow to a grand old ideology

Most eyes were fixed on Washington with the ringing in of the new year as Americans held their breath in anticipation of whether sceptical Republicans would agree a deal with the White House to avert the worst of the fiscal cliff. Outside the capital, there was another insurrection brewing that symbolised the unrest within the Republican party.

Hours after John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, decided he would not hold a vote on a promised $60bn aid package for states battered by superstorm Sandy, Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, held a press conference to eviscerate his fellow Republican and lament the state of his party. “This used to be something that was not political. You know, disaster relief was something that you didn’t play games with. But now ... everything is the subject of one-upmanship, everything is a possibility – a potential piece of bait for the political game,” he said, pinning the blame directly at Mr Boehner. “It is why the American people hate Congress.”

Mr Christie’s diatribe reflects the fundamental problem within the Republican party. The majority of Republican legislators who were swept into office in 2010 represent deeply conservative districts and believe their primary mission is to cut government spending and minimise the role of government in people’s lives. They see themselves as the “last line of defence” against a White House they believe is driving the US into bankruptcy.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, it appeared Republicans were seeking to change their ways: ready to possibly rethink their views on issues such as immigration reform and quiet the most inflammatory rhetoric on social issues like abortion rights. Hopes were heightened shortly after the election when Mr Boehner said tax revenue was “on the table”, a reversal in position for Republicans.

But recent events in Washington – from the showdown over the fiscal cliff and a shortlived rebellion by rank and file legislators against Mr Boehner, to the fracas over the funding for Sandy, to threats to block and extension of the US borrowing limit – show Republicans are holding firm to the view that their policy positions reflect the views of a majority of Americans even if their “messaging” needs improvement.

Far from being an iron fisted leader that can corral his legislators, Mr Boehner seems prepared to ignore his more pragmatic inclinations in favour of the more conservative and ideologically driven members of the House. “I don’t think it’s about the Republican party needing to become more moderate; I really believe it’s the Republican party becoming more modern,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a top Republican congresswoman, in a recent CNN interview.

Mr Obama, who was elected in 2008 on a vow to try to bridge the political divide in the country, is also showing signs he will be less willing to engage in protracted negotiations with Republicans. Jack Lew, the president’s nominee to be Treasury secretary, is understood to have poor relations with House Republicans although he will be critical to negotiations in February to raise the debt limit and negotiate a possible change in the “sequester” that would slash government and defence spending by $1.2tn over 10 years.

For Republicans, the resistance to the kind of pragmatic dealmaking and governing that Mr Christie was referring to in his press conference is the result of competing facts. The redrawing of congressional districts across the country by Republican governors means an overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress represent districts that are conservative and would not likely elect a Democrat. That means their only likely political challenge in future would not come from a Democrat, but from the right, from a fellow Republican.

Even though the conservative Tea Party movement appears to be losing steam across the country, changes in campaign laws in the US have given more power to like-minded outside spending groups that finance candidates’ campaigns and efforts to oust Republicans who are not deemed to be Conservative enough. Groups such as the Club for Growth, an activist anti-tax group, and Americans for Prosperity, have already signalled they are considering some high-profile challenges to Republicans in 2014.

When Mr Christie took on his fellow Republicans, he did it with the knowledge that his approval ratings were soaring in New Jersey because of high marks for his leadership after the storm. A new Gallup poll showed approval of Congress lingering at record lows of just 14 per cent.

But it is a distinctly American dynamic that for individual members, who believe the only risk they face is if they are seen as not being conservative enough, such polls will hardly matter. For Americans looking for action in Washington to reshape its budget and tax code and immigration policies, the wait will be long.

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