The government shutdown is the latest reminder that the Republican Party has been taken over by a minority of its members – the Tea Party – and this segment threatens to run the GOP off the rails even further if the grown-ups in the room don't step in and take control.
The evidence is clear that the mainstream GOP is not benefiting from the Tea Party influence in Washington. Tea Party members of the House GOP are fighting against the October 17 debt-limit increase, a strategy that, if carried out, would be a catastrophic political blunder and quite possibly hand the House to the Democrats in 2014.
A vocal minority continues to talk endlessly about President Obama's birth certificate, a huge turn-off to most voters. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), going on a more or less solo 21-hour pseudo-filibuster, boxed the GOP into a corner that the vast majority of his caucus did not want to be in. Each of these instances – and many more – damage Republicans' ability to win a presidential election and further increase the chances of a Democrat winning in 2016, 2020, and beyond.
In addition to losing the messaging battle with the American public, the GOP lost five very winnable US Senate races in the past two cycles – Nevada, Delaware, Colorado in 2010, and Indiana and Missouri in 2012 – because radical candidates who couldn't win a general election made it through the primaries. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could be the Senate Majority Leader today and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) would have been retired if it weren't for the national party's strategic blunders in letting these races get away from them.
At the same time, GOP leaders have had to deal with the ramifications of not getting their preferred (and usually bipartisanly popular) candidates into office, such as when well-respected former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) lost his primary last year to a candidate who went on to give the previously safe Republican seat to a Democrat. Senators Cruz and Mike Lee (R-UT), who both represent states where Tea Party Republicans can win not just a primary but also a general election, have proven to be a major thorn in the side of most every Republican in Congress. Not only that, but they knocked off well-respected mainstream Republicans in their primary elections to get there.
Don't take my word for it; look no further than veteran Congressman Peter King (R-NY), who referred to Cruz recently as a “fraud,” and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who called him a “wacko bird.”
Despite all of this, GOP leadership is cowering in fear of the Tea Party. It walks away from negotiations with President Obama for fear that a Tea Party candidate will beat its members in a primary. They also fear throwing a wet blanket over what they perceive to be the most energetic segment of their electorate. But look no further than 2012 when the Tea Party “energy” failed to help the party capture the White House or the Senate.
Enough is enough. The GOP has been burned too many times by the very segment of the party that it claims to be its biggest strength. Here's what the grown-ups should do:
•Cut your losses with the Tea Party in Congress and work with the majority of the GOP that wants to get things done. Then work with Democrats across the aisle just as Ronald Reagan did with Tip O'Neill. Less than a quarter of Speaker John Boehner's GOP caucus wears a Tea Party label, while even fewer wear one in McConnell's caucus. Get a majority of your caucus to vote with you – you don't even have to break the “Hastert Rule” (the majority of the majority) – and build a governing coalition with congressmen and women from across the aisle.
•Stand behind statesmen like McCain when they call out GOP radicals for what they are. The American people will respect you for it and just might reward you in the 2016 presidential elections.
•Don't be afraid to assert yourselves in GOP primaries and get behind the party members who you want to work with in Washington. Democrats do a much better job of this than Republicans. Nancy Pelosi had a remarkably effective grip on the Democratic Party during her speakership.
Leaders like Boehner – good people who want to move the country forward – need to get a grip of their party and do what will ultimately benefit them the most. I'm cautiously optimistic they will.Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. A former journalist and political campaign manager, he has spent the past 20-plus years helping a wide variety of clients develop their public affairs strategies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.