Point of view

The GOP's proxy war in North Carolina

May 13, 2014 

Thom Tillis’ Senate primary victory over his challengers is a harbinger of importance far beyond North Carolina’s borders, with broad ideological and political ramifications. This Republican primary was nothing short of a proxy war among the battling factions of the GOP.

What happened last week was not metaphorical. It was as literal as one could imagine. Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney endorsed House Speaker Thom Tillis. He was the establishment choice. Sen. Rand Paul, the leading national spokesperson for the tea party point of view, vigorously endorsed Greg Brannon. Mike Huckabee, standing in for evangelical wing of the GOP, came out for Mark Harris.

In this clash, the three-way civil war among Republicans just had its most clear and convincing test for 2016. The establishment won. Power, money and established names took the victory. The tea party insurgency is over.

This should not have come as a surprise to anyone, despite Tillis and Brannon running even numbers right up to the last minute. Money, which translates into advertising, and big names like Bush and Romney carried the day for Tillis.

In a broader sense, however, the result fits predictably into the Republican Party’s history of flirtation with outside-the-box thinking – but flirtation only. Conservatism by nature shuns radical ideas. In every major political flashpoint in modern political history, the GOP has rejected extremism and come home to its comfortable same-as-it-always-was identity. Ideology gets lip service, but it is never actually put into action.


The historical evidence is ample.George W. Bush ran as a Ronald Reagan small government man, a cultural conservative – against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s personal transgressions. He then proceeded to vastly grow the size of government, favoring Wall Street and corporate interests and government surveillance of personal information. He led us into foreign wars borrowing from the reasoning of Woodrow Wilson, not Ronald Reagan – who intervened in foreign conflicts less than either of the Bushes. (Two for now, maybe three come 2016.) W. was an establishment man from the start.

So was Reagan. While he mouthed the words of his predecessor Barry Goldwater – the only real ideologue to gain presidential standing in modern conservatism – Reagan was a pragmatist. He spoke the conservative tag-lines on hot-button issues like abortion and gun control but never appeared in person at rallies for these constituencies. He raised taxes. He signed immigration amnesty bills. He talked to the Communists and kissed babies in Red Square. It was, in fact, the reasonable thing to do. Reagan, at the end of the day, was a middle-of-the-road, establishment man.

The list goes on. Richard Nixon, who rose to prominence on rhetoric and investigations that were his era’s equivalent of the tea party’s anti-Obama fervor, settled into a practical, establishment governance that oversaw the growth of government regulation from the EPA to OSHA and affirmative action. Reagan kissed those babies in Red Square only because Nixon went to China and had tea with Chairman Mao. A tea party, if there ever were one. But not one that the far right of that era liked one bit.

These examples go to show that the modern conservative movement, since it was thrown into existence by Barry Goldwater – a real ideologue who lost spectacularly – has been and still is a creature of middle-ground, practical policymaking. The rhetorical disconnect occurs when leaders pay lip service to divisive ideological positions but then govern from the center (as they must). This conflict continues today.

In North Carolina, Thom Tillis’ win shows that the established GOP leadership still holds the reins. With the Tar Heel state a key battleground for 2016, this test case shows a clear result. All of the “outside agitation” and big money spending aside, the business wing of the GOP beat out the tea party libertarians and the evangelical right. Very few politicians have been able to bring these kinds of coalitions together (perhaps Reagan, on a national level; perhaps Jim Hunt here, as a mirror image).

For the time being, the GOP remains fractured three ways, as the primary showed. But the establishment retains its ultimate control.

Jonathan Riehl, J.D., Ph.D., is a communications consultant for political campaigns and national nonprofits and an instructor in communications studies at Wake Technical Community College.

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