Cokie & Steven V. Roberts: Pragmatists, purists and power
PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. -- On one side are the pragmatists: Republicans who want to be part of the governing process and accept compromise as the price of participation. On the other are the purists, who prefer playing gadfly to governing and equate compromise with betrayal.
That fault line runs right through the middle of the GOP today, and it was on clear display at CPAC, the recent gathering of conservative activists. The pragmatist creed was voiced by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey: "I'll remind you of one simple truth in this democracy: We don't get to govern if we don't win. When we don't get to govern ... what's worse is they do."
The purist vision was expressed by former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum: "We're told we have to put aside what we believe is the best interest of the country so a Republican candidate can win. That may result in a win for a Republican candidate, but it will be a devastating loss for America."
That struggle on the national level is mirrored in many states this year, including here in South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham -- a card-carrying pragmatist -- is being challenged in the Republican primary by five opponents, all competing for the perfectionist vote.
"I'm a coalition guy," boasts Graham. "I'm a conservative who gets things done." His leading challenger, state Sen. Lee Bright, accuses the senator of being "astonishingly out of touch with American conservatives."
Bright and his fellow purists are inspired by Jim DeMint, the former Senator from South Carolina who formed the Senate Conservatives Fund, an organization specifically designed to purge the party of heretics like Graham. DeMint then quit the Senate in 2012 to run a right-wing pressure group and shed any pretense than he was actually interested in the messy business of governing.
Graham and DeMint -- and the factions they symbolize -- have clashed repeatedly in recent years. DeMint and his top acolyte in the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas, were leading architects of the strategy to shut down the government as a way of defunding Obamacare. Graham strongly opposed them, calling the shutdown "unrealistic" and "a bridge too far."
Graham has also infuriated DeMintarians by backing two of Obama's Supreme Court nominations and supporting a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living and working here.
To Graham, the survival of the GOP is at stake. "We're in a demographic death spiral as a party," he says. "And the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don't do that, it really doesn't matter who we run, in my view."
The purists insist on screaming "amnesty" and ignoring the looming peril Graham is warning them about.
Graham is likely to survive his primary challenge this spring, but he's not the only target of the DeMintarians. Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (the Republican leader in the Senate) are all facing opponents who accuse them of the same heresy practiced by Graham.
They are "coalition guys" who actually talk to Democrats occasionally and came to Washington to "get things done." In recent years, the DeMintarians have successfully deposed three incumbent Republicans who followed a similar philosophy: Bob Bennett of Utah, Richard Lugar of Indiana and the late Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. But this year, the pragmatists are armed and ready to repulse their assault.
"I think we're going to crush them everywhere," McConnell told The New York Times.
He's probably right, but 2014 is only a warmup for the real battle: the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. According to purists like Cruz and DeMint, the Republicans have failed to win the White House when their nominees -- like Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney -- are not conservative enough.
But that self-delusion defies the "simple truth" enunciated by Christie and the demographics emphasized by Graham. Romney won 59 percent of the white vote and still lost; the electorate will be even more heavily non-white in 2016. Moreover, according to a recent Pew survey, millenials between 18 and 33 prefer the Democrats by 16 points.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.