Dispatches from the Potomac#14 | Republican Party in Disarray a Year before the Presidential Election

In late September, the Republican Party was plunged into confusion. This is not about the nomination contest for next year’s presidential election in which the real estate mogul Donald Trump is the leading contender. The issue was the US House of Representatives, where the party holds a solid majority.

This article was originally written in October for publication in the November 2015 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

Sudden Turmoil within the Republican Party

Suddenly, the Republican Party leader in the House of Representatives, House Speaker, John Boehner, announced his resignation. Moreover, in early October the second-in-command, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who was regarded as a likely successor to Mr. Boehner, unexpectedly withdrew from the Speakership race. The election for Speaker of the House is scheduled for October 29; but, as of the middle of October all the candidates to be the successor to unite the Republican Party have disappeared. By the time this is published, a new Speaker will probably have been chosen, but it may not be an end to the turmoil in the Republican Party.

In the mid-term elections last November, the Republicans were big winners, claiming 247 of the 435 seats in the House, the largest number since 1928. In the same election, the Republicans also gained a majority in the Senate. Heading into next year’s presidential race, the party claimed that their governing capability would be demonstrated to voters through the stable operation of Congress, and there was no expectation of any kind of disruption in the political calendar. That is why, less than one year later, everyone was surprised by Speaker Boehner’s announcement of his resignation.

Speaker Boehner’s decision to resign was precipitated by the intensifying conflict within the Republican Party. Even as the end of September approached, there was no agreement on an interim budget for the new fiscal year starting on October 1, and a government closure was imminent. The Speaker and the Republican Party leaders were in a hurry to establish a condition-free interim budget that even the Democratic Party would approve. However, among the conditions imposed for approval of the interim budget by the conservative hardliners within the Republican Party was the elimination of government funding to the non-profit organization Planned Parenthood Federation of America (“PPFA”). This condition was opposed by the Democratic Party, and the deliberations deadlocked.

For the Speaker, the insistence of conservative hardliners was a foolhardy tactic. The faction’s reason for discontinuing the funding was an allegation of organ trafficking of tissue from fetuses aborted by PPFA staff, even though the PPFA had denied the allegations as "fabrications by anti-abortion groups." According to a poll, most people support continuation of funding for PPFA. The PPFA is an organization that provides a broad range of services related to women's health, with about 700 affiliated medical institutions, many of which are relied on by low-income women. In addition, abortion accounts for only 3% of the various medical services that PPFA performs, and there are already rules stating that government funding cannot be used for abortions. Cutting off the funding makes the Republican Party a target of criticism. And if opposition by Republicans to an interim budget that includes the funding leads to a government closure, public opinion will focus the blame on the party that is leading Congress, and there is a high probability that this will have an adverse effect in next year's presidential election. It was out of the question for Speaker Boehner to go along with the demands of the conservative hardliners, but, it seems he thought that announcing his own retirement was the only way to contain the conservative hardliners and get a provisional budget passed.

Changes in the Support Base of the Republican Party Demand Attention

After Speaker Boehner’s retirement, however, the Republican Party will probably be in even greater upheaval. The conservative hardliner faction that has forced out the Speaker is beginning to infiltrate the support base of the Republican Party. There are only about 40 members of the House of Representatives who are conservative hardliners, and none who seem to have the potential to be appointed to become the new leaders in the House. Nevertheless, the current leadership cannot ignore the brinksmanship tactics of this faction, which also threatened the beleaguered Boehner with a no-confidence vote. Majority Leader McCarthy simply dropped out of the race when the conservative hardliners voiced their opposition to his candidacy for the Speaker position. There is an unexpectedly large number of Republican Party supporters who support the conservative faction’s opinions. This change that has occurred in the support base is very likely to increase the influence that the conservative hardliners exert on the management of the House by the new leadership. In the management of the lower house, the conservative hardliners, who emphasize ideology and grapple with questions of morality, are likely to get their way; and the chances of using the brinksmanship tactics that were avoided by the current leadership are increasing. On the other hand, there is growing opposition from moderates and conservatives who feel an intensified sense of crisis, and there is fear that the rifts within the party will expand.

Concerned voices are starting to be raised from within the Republican Party, on the ability to win the presidential and congressional elections next year if the conservative hardliners, who promote only their own views without regard for the consequences, continue to increase their power within the party. However, it is the current leadership, including Majority Leader McCarthy, who has continued to aggressively recruit conservative hardliner candidates since the 2010 mid-term elections. The differences between the ideologies of the hardliners and those of the moderate conservatives in the current leadership were not obvious in the elections. But in House management, the attitude of “even compromise with the Democratic Obama administration when necessary to achieve the results that demonstrate the ability to govern effectively” held by the current leadership has been shown to be in stark contrast to the attitude of the conservative hardliners, who say “the cause is the most important thing, and no compromise can be allowed.” Thus, the intraparty conflict that Republicans themselves have allowed to grow, has intensified to the point of having serious adverse effects on the party itself, and has become an issue that cannot be quickly resolved. In fact, the change in the base of support for the Republican Party that is at the root of the conflict will continue to influence the activity in Congress, as well as next year’s presidential and congressional elections, including the race to name the party’s candidate for the presidency. The turmoil that has arisen within the Republican Party in the House of Representatives is only the beginning, and there may continue to be unexpected changes in the future.