No, the GOP's 'civil war' is not about 'tactics'
The struggle between the GOP Establishment and its conservative base is often even bitterer than the Republican-Democrat contest. Civil wars are like that: differences among people who ought to be on the same side engender a special kind of anger. The Establishment wing, being established in the setas of media and party power, controls the language of the debate, mirroring the Democrats' similar advantage. Thus, Establishmentarians are "moderate" Republicans, meaning that going any further right is immoderate, i.e. dangerous or extreme. The Tea Party/base side of the debate is "hard right" or "far right" or even "extreme right."
When was the last time you heard about a "moderate Democrat"? I realize they are nearly extinct, but they used to be called "blue dogs" (hardly a complementary term). Sometimes you hear Sen. Joe Manchin called a "conservative Democrat" but I can't recall ever hearing him called a "moderate" Democrat. But one rarely hears, for example, Gov. Chris Christie called a "liberal Republican."
The GOP Establishment, in fact, calls itself conservative. But to the conservative base, this is an awful distortion of the truth. We live in an era in which the very term "liberal" is discredited in the eyes of most of the public. The reason is simple: liberals have promised utopian solutions (the "war on poverty" for example) but have failed to deliver. So now, they call themselves "progressives" because Americans tend to believe in progress, and that label has not yet been fully discredited.
The debate is now very old, so it would seem to be difficult to write anything new and compelling on the subject. But Jeffrey Lord of The American Spectator has done just that today, in a long piece that deserves to be read by its very subject, Dr. Charles Krauthammer. In "Dear Dr. Krauthammer," he lays out a devastating critique of some things the good doctor (and I mean that without sarcasm - I believe Dr. K. is of good heart, often brilliant and insightful, and a man deserving all the accolades and bestsellerdom he is currently receiving). An excerpt will give you some of the flavor, but please, do read the whole thing over the holiday:
Dear Dr. Krauthammer:
The other night on the O'Reilly Factor, you made the case that the differences within the Republican Party were "really one over tactics rather than over ideology and objectives.... On objectives you tell me what is the fundamental difference between the so-called moderates and radicals. I don't see it."
With respect, I do see that fundamental difference. And it is certainly safe to say I am not alone in seeing some moderates as having long ago abandoned the GOP's core beliefs - and that is in fact a fundamental difference.
The reason there was such heat in the debate between the Cruz-Lee supporters and others over shutting down the government in order to defund Obamacare - or, at a minimum, to delay it a year - was precisely because this was seen on the conservative side of this divide as merely the latest example of moderation at work. And when I say the "latest example" I specifically mean "latest" in the sense that the moderation displayed has been going on now for decades. This was not some one-shot, one-time stand-alone difference.
There is a reason conservatives believe so-called moderates do not, in fact, share the same goals.
To use a central point at issue, just as you correctly say, at the core of the Republican Party is a belief in limited government.
Is that really the case for so-called "moderates"?
In 1980 Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency on a platform that read, in part, this on the subject of education:
... the Republican Party supports deregulation by the federal government of public education, and encourages the elimination of the federal Department of Education.
President Reagan failed to eliminate the Education Department. Why? As his OMB Director David Stockman noted in his baleful memoirs, there were Republicans who "could not and would not disown... the 'me-too' statism that had guided it" for the decades leading up to the Reagan presidency. Indeed, Stockman's point was that there were so many statist Republicans in Congress at the time that there was "no political home" for the idea of limited government in the GOP.
The next Republican to serve two-terms, President Bush 43, flatly refused to abolish the Education Department. His goal, according to Karl Rove, was to "use the federal government as a lever for reform" - which is to say, increase the federal role in education. Thus the Bush contribution of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), an expansion of the federal role in education that was the fulfillment of a campaign promise Rove thought particularly politically clever. Indeed, Rove boasting in his memoirs that after campaigning extensively on education Bush received "44 percent of the vote from those for whom education was their top issue." Lost in this particular political calculus is that Reagan, who campaigned on outright abolition of the Department of Education in 1980, won in a 44 state landslide, while Bush, promising to add to the federal government role in education, needed the Supreme Court to get him in the White House door and in fact famously lost the popular vote to Al Gore.