For all the Republican Party's success in the last election, the GOP is passing through a time of internal ideological struggle, a fight it's been in the middle of since 2009. Describing the struggle as one between centrists and conservatives, or conservatives and ultra-conservatives, isn't very helpful since different people mean different things by the word "conservative." Nor is it all that useful to say the fight's between the Tea Party wing and the establishment. These are quasi-metaphorical terms that, when used carelessly, confuse more than they clarify.
So what's the fight about? Is the difference merely one of fervor or craziness, or is it ideological?
The Tea Party arose in the spring of 2009, shortly after Barack Obama became president. Naturally, the new president's sympathizers interpreted the uprising as a racist reaction, but the evidence for that view is exceedingly thin. For the members of the Tea Party, their ire had been building for years as the nation descended deeper into debt, the welfare state expanded, and government acquired new and greater regulatory powers — all under a Republican president.
Unlike George W. Bush, Barack Obama was elected precisely because he promised to encourage these trends, not simply tolerate them. So when he announced his intentions in the form of a stimulus bill — a bill that would hand out billions of public dollars to state and local governments to spur economic growth — the Tea Partiers, as they quickly became known, just couldn't take it anymore.
For a short time, all was well within the Republican Party: a spontaneous protest against a Democratic president felt really, really good. But after a year or so, significant differences between the establishment and the Tea Party became unavoidable. Barring some differences over foreign policy — some Tea Partiers want to end foreign entanglements while traditional Republicans do not — the intra-party contest has more to do with strategy than overall aims.
Tea Partiers actually want to do something immediately about the debt and deficit. Traditional Republicans want to win elections and, having won them, then do something about the debt and deficit. Tea Partiers want to roll back the welfare state and eliminate entire government programs, even agencies. Traditional Republicans agree, but insist that you can't achieve it without winning overwhelming majorities, and you'll never win overwhelming majorities with fiery rhetoric about slashing government and abolishing the welfare state. You'll lose the next election, then where will you be?
But there is one other difference, and it may be the most important one: Tea Partiers think the government should spurn special interests, including the special interests of corporate America. They think government institutions like the Export Import Bank, which subsidizes foreign companies that trade with domestic companies so that the latter can stay "competitive," are hampering economic vitality and encouraging politicians to dole out freebies to their favorites. The members of the Tea Party think subsidies and preferential tax policies for favored industries encourage American companies to concentrate on securing favors from government rather than making better products. The Ex-Im Bank and all forms of corporate welfare ought to be done away with.
This, for traditional Republicans, is going too far, and here is where the crucial ideological difference comes in. The traditional or establishment wing of the party tends to be older. Its leaders are now in their 60s and 70s and remember the Cold War. During the Cold War, the great ideological struggle was between collectivist and totalitarian statism on the one hand and free enterprise on the other. Free enterprise meant business, and so for these old Cold Warrior Republicans, business was almost always a good thing. It rewarded individual effort, and it created lots of wealth for everybody. It needed to be protected from the encroachments of the collectivists and busybodies in the Democratic Party.
The Cold War ended in 1991, and the conservatives who've risen to prominence since that time didn't come of age thinking in terms of Cold War polarities. For most of them, private enterprise was certainly a good thing, but it wasn't the intrinsically good thing it was for their older colleagues. These younger conservatives saw that private entities, especially large corporations, could shake down the government for taxpayer-financed goodies. They honored the private sector and criticized do-gooder bureaucrats for trying to regulate and manage it (or punish it and redistribute its wealth), but they did not suffer from the delusion that motives are always noble in the private sector. These younger conservatives rejected the idea that it was government's job to encourage and reward economic growth. For them, the confluence of government and the private sector would almost always result in bad things: special tax favors and targeted subsidies in the short term, dysfunctional and languishing industries propped up by taxpayers in the long term.
Every political party experiences internal turmoil, and some of the GOP's intra-party conflict has to do with the usual questions of principle and practicality. But the deeper division is this: Some believe business is always upright and deserves government help, while others believe in original sin.