Wall Street Journal
By William A Galston
September 30, 2015
The resignation of House speaker John Boehner symbolizes the most important question Republicans face: Do they want to be a party of protest or a party of governance?
Governance requires compromise, but the protesters reject that as collusion. They want to get their own way without yielding an inch, which is impossible. This is the core truth about the criticism Mr. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell level at insurgents: As long as 60 votes in the Senate are required to move legislation to the president’s desk, and 67 senators and 290 representatives are needed to overcome his veto, pure protest leads straight into a cul-de-sac.
But narrowly focusing on the unlikelihood of legislative victory misses the point, say many conservative pundits. Mainstream Republican leaders seem unwilling to say what needs to be stated clearly and boldly: We can’t win the vote until we win the argument. There is no evidence, however, that an unalloyed conservative agenda enjoys majority support in the country or would do so if articulated even more intransigently.
A Pew Research Center survey released Sept. 28 showed that 40% of voters would blame Republicans for shutting down the government, compared with only 26% who would blame Democrats. According to a Quinnipiac poll released the same day, fully 69% of American voters—including 56% of Republicans—oppose shutting down the federal government in the dispute over funding Planned Parenthood.
Nor do conservatives fare better on same-sex marriage, which 55% of registered voters now support in the Quinnipiac poll. Sixty-two percent say that government officials should be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; 55% agree with that even when those officials say that same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.
The choice between protest and governance confronts GOP primary voters as well. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was one of the loudest voices defending the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and he seems determined to push for defunding Planned Parenthood in December.
Every Republican presidential candidate will be compelled to take a position on the government-shutdown strategy. The ones who support it will represent the party of protest. The ones who reject it, if there are any, will be standard-bearers for the party of governance.
Assuming, as I do, that the Republican Party in the end won’t nominate a candidate with zero experience in elected office, there are four candidates with a plausible path to the nomination—Mr. Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the current governor of Ohio, John Kasich.
If Republican primary voters want the most conservative candidate, they will choose Mr. Cruz. If they want a safe candidate who would know how to be president on Day One, they can choose between seasoned executives from the two largest swing states. And if they follow the “ Buckley rule”—nominate the most conservative candidate who could win the general election—they will back Mr. Rubio.
In today’s Republican Party, both governors face an uphill climb. Jeb Bush has underperformed in debates, and his donors’ patience seems to be wearing thin. So far, the “I’m my own man” candidate has offered his brother’s foreign policy and his brother’s tax plan.
He can survive a poor showing in Iowa, but not in New Hampshire. As of now, Mr. Bush is running fifth in the Granite State, with 5% of the vote. It remains to be seen whether he can offer anything that excites the Republican electorate, or whether costly TV advertisements can boost his standing enough to turn the tide.
John Kasich has a solidly conservative record, both as the Ohio governor and previously as chairman of the House Budget Committee. For today’s right wing, though, his decision to accept President Obama’s Medicaid expansion verges on political treason, as does his support for a path to legal status for the 12 million immigrants who lack it.
Worse still, he believes in compromise to get things done.
Campaigning last weekend in Iowa, Mr. Kasich remarked that Republicans willing to deal with Democrats are “drowned out by the voices that yell, ‘Stand for something.’ ” He positioned himself squarely against these loud voices: “I’m hearing increasingly, ‘How do we get people to work together?’ ” At the Iowa State Fair this summer, he laid it on the line: “You want to deal with immigration? You want to balance the budget? You want to deal with entitlements? . . . You have to do it as a team. One party cannot do it all.”
Mr. Bush has occasionally spoken of the need for bipartisan compromise, and Mr. Rubio’s record is more pragmatic than his campaign rhetoric suggests. But of all the candidates now in the Republican contest, Mr. Kasich is offering the clearest vision of his party as a party of governance. In less than five months, we will find out whether today’s Republican electorate is open to some form of this vision. If not, prepare for a rerun of 1964.
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