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Column: Instead of a divorce, the GOP needs primary reform

By Reihan Salam

A few days ago, an older and wiser friend of mine and I had a lengthy conversation about divorce, that most cheerful of subjects. He noted that one of the surest signs of a marriage in trouble was that both parties were convinced that they had been forgiving of various betrayals and accommodating of various foibles, yet this generosity hadn't been reciprocated. Naturally, this brought to mind the increasingly strained relationship between Tea Party conservatives and Republican regulars. What better way to describe how Ted Cruz must feel about John Boehner, the sellout, and how John Boehner must feel about Ted Cruz, the zealot?

Molly Ball of the Atlantic recounts the quasi-mutinous musings of various conservative luminaries, like Glenn Beck of TheBlaze, Erick Erickson of RedState.com, and Sean Hannity of Fox News, among others. As recently as 2010, the notion that the Tea Party movement would bolt from the GOP to establish a party of its own would have seemed absurd. But now, in the wake of a fiscal showdown that's proven to be an utter fiasco for congressional Republicans, the idea of a bona fide divorce is gaining credence. Among the Tea Party faithful, there is a widespread conviction that the effort to defund Obamacare would have proven successful had Speaker Boehner and his anxious allies been tougher, and more willing to risk breaching the debt ceiling. Republican regulars, meanwhile, are largely convinced that the defund Obamacare effort was a hopeless indulgence that exacted a real political cost. At least one critic of the Tea Party movement, David Frum of the Daily Beast and CNN, has argued that Republicans would benefit if "the Sarah Palins and the Ted Cruzes who have done so much harm to their hopes over the past three election cycles" were to bolt.

This isn't the first time libertarian-minded conservatives have contemplated a formal exit from the GOP. In the 1970s, William A. Rusher, the publisher of National Review and a staunch, Rockefeller-hating Goldwaterite, frequently made the case for a new conservative party, which he hoped would be led by Ronald Reagan. After Reagan's narrow defeat in the 1976 contest for the Republican presidential nomination, however, the former California governor stood by his moderate rival Gerald Ford, and in doing so he dashed the hopes of Rusher and other third-party enthusiasts. The Libertarian Party, established in the early 1970s, has long been divided over whether to appeal to disaffected Republicans or hippies. In the 1980 presidential election, the Libertarians achieved great success by espousing a pacifist, left-leaning brand of "low-tax liberalism," while in 1988 the party turned to Ron Paul, the libertarian populist who would later make waves as a Republican presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012. The 2012 Libertarian presidential nominee, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, an unpretentious Republican who combined familiar Tea Party bromides with a commitment to ending the War on Drugs, had some promise as an alternative to Mitt Romney, but in the end his candidacy proved to be a footnote, in part because the septuagenarian Paul stole his thunder. The Constitution Party, first established as the U.S. Taxpayers' Party in 1991, is a vehicle for a hard-edged Christian conservative politics that has never found much success. And in 2000, Pat Buchanan tried to transform Ross Perot's Reform Party into a nationalist conservative party in line with his own idiosyncratic, anti-trade populism.

Given that all of these efforts have failed, why would the Tea Party movement succeed in establishing itself as a real rival to the GOP? I doubt that it would. But it is true that the political landscape has changed in recent years. Over the past decade, formal party organizations have grown progressively weaker, to the point where they are hollowed-out shells often overshadowed by well-funded independent expenditure groups. This is despite the fact that broad-based party organizations have a number of advantages over non-party outfits, including greater accountability and autonomy. The Tea Party movement already operates as a kind of shadow party within the larger Republican universe, with independent expenditure groups, think tanks, and overlapping networks of intellectuals and activists serving as its foundation. Getting on the ballot would be difficult, as the Democratic-Republican duopoly in most states actively works to suppress political competition from minor parties, but it wouldn't be impossible.

The obvious downside of a Tea Party exit for conservatives is that the U.S. relies almost exclusively on first-past-the-post elections, in which the candidate with the most votes wins the election. Countries that use various forms of proportional representation are far friendlier to minor parties, which is why Germany, Israel and New Zealand tend to have several parties represented in their national legislatures and not just two. Tea Party candidates in congressional races would presumably be splitting the right-of-center vote with GOP candidates, thus allowing Democrats to slip into office in areas that are now monolithically Republican. Moreover, Tea Party stalwarts have good reason to believe that they can eventually take over the national Republican Party. Why abandon it now when victory is within reach? Of course, the prospect of a Republican Party dominated by the Tea Party movement isn't exactly heartening to mainstream conservatives who fear that Tea Party excesses will cement a generation-long Democratic majority.

Rather than an outright divorce, Republicans ought to consider a different approach. Right now, Tea Party activists are pledging to launch a new round of primary challenges against Republicans deemed "squishy." The big problem with primary elections, however, is that they attract relatively few voters, and even fairly well-informed party members often know little about the candidates on primary ballots. Knowing a candidate's party is tremendously useful — it offers a quick shorthand as to what candidates believe. Primary ballots are bereft of this kind of useful information. Yes, you can generally be assured that the candidates running in a GOP primary are Republicans. But which kind of Republican?

In "Informing Consent: Voter Ignorance, Political Parties, and Election Law," Christopher Elmendorf of the UC Davis School of Law and David Schleicher of the George Mason University School of Law propose providing primary voters with on-ballot guides to candidates' issue stances, as well as endorsements. For example, if a Tea Party candidate runs against a regular Republican, she can include endorsements by current officeholders (like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul) or widely-recognized political groups (like Tea Party Express). Republican primary voters would have a much easier time making a meaningful choice between candidates if they knew that one had been endorsed by the Tea Party Express while the other had been endorsed by the centrist Main Street Partnership. This wouldn't make the GOP's warring factions fall in love all over again. Indeed, it could intensify intra-party conflict by encouraging the formation of new pressure groups. But it would help settle the question of whether Republicans want to be the party of Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz or of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. And that's not nothing.

(The views expressed here are author's own.)

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