In many ways the showdown underway in Washington over the budget sequester is complicated and confusing. But on one level is it clarifying: It has revealed the supremacy of the Republican Party’s economic wing over its other key factions.
For decades, Republicans have talked about their three-legged stool–the coalition assembled by Ronald Reagan that has defined their party ever since: economic conservatives, social conservatives and defense conservatives. The three groups have never worked in perfect harmony. But when there’s tension, it’s usually among social and economic conservatives. Heartland evangelicals and Wall Street financiers have precious little in common. Evangelical Republicans, for instance, had little love for an economy-first candidate like Mitt Romney. But their (last) favorite candidate, the intensely pro-life Rick Santorum, was ultimately steamrolled. George W. Bush labored to keep social conservatives on his side with issues like a gay marriage ban. But ultimately many evangelicals were disappointed with his presidency.
Now comes the sequester, which has, for the first time since at least September 11, 2001, put the GOP’s defense and economic wings in conflict. With the sequester scheduled to inflict $46 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget, President Obama has offered an alternative that would mitigate the cuts, in part, by raising taxes on the wealthy. But Republican leaders won’t swallow any new taxes or accept smaller cuts to the federal budget.
And so, defense will get the budget ax. And national security conservatives, long accustomed to being granted virtually every wish by their party, find themselves appalled. Bill Kristol, a reliable spokesman for the GOP’s defense wing, calls the sequester “deeply irresponsible,” and a threat to national security (in part, he says, because it will force the military to keep one aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf instead of two). John McCain, who shares Kristol’s passion for defense, has hinted he might support closing tax loopholes to blunt the Pentagon cuts.
But it appears that the likes of Kristol and McCain have lost out to economic conservatives, who insist that nothing–not even the defense budget–is more important than shrinking the budget without raising taxes. The Republican party still is a long way from civil war. But that stool is looking awfully wobbly right now.