Try 1 month for 99¢
E.J. Dionne Jr.

E.J. Dionne Jr. | The Washington Post

The Republican civil war, like all civil wars, is even messier than it looks. It’s a battle between two different conservative establishments complicated by philosophical struggles across many other fronts. Its resolution will determine whether we are a governable country.

Because the GOP fight is so important, it’s a mistake to dismiss the passage of a real, honest-to-goodness budget through both houses of Congress as a minor event. The deal negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan may be small, but it represents a major recalibration of forces inside the Republican Party.

From the time the Republicans took over the House in 2010, it became a matter of doctrine that conservatives should never reach compromises with Democrats — and especially with President Barack Obama. Compromise came to be seen as a violation of conservative ideals.

Poll after poll has shown that attitudes toward the quest for common ground have become one of the new dividing lines between the parties. Typical was a Pew Research Center survey taken in January, as the new Congress opened. Given a choice pitting elected officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with” against those who “stick to their positions,” 59 percent of Democrats but only 36 percent of Republicans preferred compromise-seekers.

In arriving at a relatively down-the-middle deal with Murray and the Democrats to avoid a government shutdown and further gridlock, Ryan was thus defying what has been the prevailing view among his party’s rank and file. In doing so, the ambitious Wisconsin Republican offered a hint as to where he sees his party moving over the long run.

The tea party certainly still wields power in GOP primaries, one reason why only one of the seven Republican senators facing tea party challengers, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, supported allowing a vote on the deal. But Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner calculated, correctly, that the wreckage from October’s shutdown strategy allowed them to breach the tea party’s barrier against deal-making.

Ryan partially hedged his bets. He declined on “Meet the Press” last Sunday to join Boehner’s robust assault on outside conservative groups and insisted that the GOP would still make demands when an extension of the debt ceiling comes up for a vote early next year.

Nonetheless, when Ryan declared that he had to make a deal because “elections have consequences,” he was making a fundamental concession to the view Obama has been advancing: that with the Democrats still holding the White House and the Senate, compromise is unavoidable if governing is to happen.

Let’s be clear about what this GOP brawl is not. It is not a clash between “conservatives” and “moderates.” Most genuine Republican moderates either lost primaries or were defeated by Democrats. Liberal Republicans, once a hearty breed, disappeared long ago. The Republican Party is unequivocally in conservative hands. What makes the tea party rebellion peculiar is that its champions have lifted strategy and tactics to the level of principle.

Nor is this a fight in which “the Republican establishment” is being challenged by its “grass-roots” enemies. Boehner denounced conservative fundraising behemoths (they include Freedom Works, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity) because he understands that they now constitute an alternative Republican establishment.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was even more explicit, arguing that “many of the outside groups do what they do solely to raise money.” The new establishment is bolstered by conservative talk show hosts who communicate regularly with Republican loyalists and have challenged the party’s elected leaders for control over its message.

The showdown involving the two conservative power centers is not the only dispute that matters. There are crisscrossing divisions between foreign policy hawks and non-interventionists; between those who care passionately about social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and those who would play them down; between purist libertarians and pro-business pragmatists; and between supporters and opponents of a more open policy on immigration.

These arguments, however, are secondary to the issue of how a conservative opposition should comport itself. The governing wing won this round. But Ryan’s comments on the debt ceiling, coupled with similar remarks from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, suggest that Republicans will face yet another internal struggle over how much to demand in exchange for expanding the government’s borrowing authority.

If Boehner cedes that decision to the party’s confrontational wing, the gains of this week will evaporate. And given the hostility among conservatives to Obama, the habit of seeing compromise as a form of capitulation could prove very hard to break.

Sign up to get each day's obituaries sent to your email inbox

E.J. Dionne can be reached at


Digital news editor

Digital news editor

(16) comments


The fight may have "just begun" but Obama put up a white flag on Thursday, which the Tribune didnt even put in print...the individual mandate was waived.

According to the Wall Street Journal "It seems Nancy Pelosi was wrong when she said "we have to pass" ObamaCare to "find out what's in it." No one may ever know because the White House keeps treating the Affordable Care Act's text as a mere suggestion subject to day-to-day revision. Its latest political retrofit is the most brazen: President Obama is partly suspending the individual mandate.

The White House argued at the Supreme Court that the insurance-purchase mandate was not only constitutional but essential to the law's success, while refusing Republican demands to delay or repeal it. But late on Thursday, with only four days to go before the December enrollment deadline, the Health and Human Services Department decreed that millions of Americans are suddenly exempt."



What a joke.

RIP stupid right wing statements and conclusions. You folks are worse than the gang that couldn't shoot straight. You've gotten everything wrong over the past 30 years....every thing you guys touch crumbles.

The ACA is here to stay.....single-payer not too far behind.


We will have had 24 consecutive years of pathetic presidential leadership by the time your Messiah leaves office...that includes representation from both parties. Take your blinders off.


Really.....we did pretty well under Clinton....and considering the smoldering wastefield Bush-Cheney left Obama.....he's done very well also.


Yu leave out "Reaganomics"....the tripling of the Debt, Iran-Contra, selling missiles to IRAN and IRAQ, running like a coward from Lebanon in '83......funding massacres in Central America and a massive failure to address the AIDS epidemic...Reagan sucked royally.


Pee baggers vs Daddy's boys. Conservative my derriere, they spend and pretend to be saving the taxpayers money. Look at Walker. Hope they kill their-selves off. who the hell with a conscience would want to be a politician. they are all crooks


Two words: Term Limits.


I agree Redwall, but if term limits existed in congress and the senate, this country truly would be run by lobbyists. Lawmakers would be 100% symbolic puppets

The Cross

"a real, honest-to-goodness budget"? This deal Ryan cooked up is anything but that.

Ovomit has failed to produce a budget that even DEMOCRATS would vote for in 5 years! You cannot blame budgeting on the GOP here whiners.

Tim Russell

They must have a different definition of the word "budget" where you went to school.


A very different definition from what is taught in schools. When people or businesses follow the government definition, bankruptcy is usually the end result.

In the "real world" you cannot just go out and steal from your customers to cover incompetency, as the government does.

Tim Russell

Right, there is no waste or incompetence in the Health Industry or the Energy Industry. LOL!


Tim, there is a tremendous amount of waste in both healthcare and energy.

While I would blame much of the inefficiency on these being huge monopolistic bureaucracies (which they have in common with the government), the economics of both those industries are subject to mammoth distortion due to largely to government policy.

Local healthcare providers continue to blame high local costs on low medicare reimbursement rates, while our local utilities have asked for rate increases to fund windmills and green infrastructure, even while costs of fuel have declined to a fraction of what they were a decade ago.

Tim Russell

Tight redwall. Without government , there would be no waste in either of these industries. LOL!
Do you also believe in the Easter Bunny?


I love it when Republicans can't get along.


Dionne: "The Republican civil war, like all civil wars, is even messier than it looks."

Naaawww... this is more like a dog chasing his own tail. Amusing!

"Dog chases his tail in circles"

The Everly Brothers-Bird Dog

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thanks for reading. Subscribe or log in to continue.