WASHINGTON – It has become conventional wisdom that Republicans are suffering an internal split that President Obama is successfully exploiting to neuter the Republican House. It is not true, however, that the Republican split is philosophical and fundamental. And that a hopelessly divided GOP is therefore headed for decline, perhaps irrelevance.
In fact, the split is tactical, not philosophical; short-term, not fundamental. And therefore quite solvable.
How do we know? Simple thought experiment: Imagine that we had a Republican president. Would the party be deeply divided over policy, at war with itself in Congress? Not at all. It would be rallying around something like the Paul Ryan budget that twice passed the House with near 100 percent GOP unanimity.
In reality, Republicans have a broad consensus on program and policy. But they don't have the power. What divides Republicans today is a straightforward tactical question: Can you govern from one house of Congress? Should you even try?
Can you shrink government, restrain spending, bring a modicum of fiscal sanity to the country when the president and a blocking Senate have no intention of doing so?
One faction feels committed to try. It wishes to carry out its small-government electoral promises and will cast no vote inconsistent with that philosophy. These are the House Republicans who voted no on the "fiscal cliff" deal because it raised taxes without touching spending. Indeed, it increased spending with its crazy-quilt crony-capitalist tax "credits" -- for wind power and other indulgences.
They were willing to risk the fiscal cliff. Today they are willing to risk a breach of the debt ceiling and even a government shutdown rather than collaborate with Obama's tax-and-spend second-term agenda.
The other view is that you cannot govern from the House. The reason Ryan and John Boehner finally voted yes on the lousy fiscal-cliff deal is that by then there was nowhere else to go. Republicans could not afford to bear the blame (however unfair) for a $4.5 trillion across-the-board tax hike and a Pentagon hollowed out by sequester.
The party establishment is coming around to the view that if you try to govern from one house -- e.g., force spending cuts with cliffhanging brinkmanship -- you lose. You not only don't get the cuts. You get the blame for rattled markets and economic uncertainty. You get humiliated by having to cave in the end. And you get opinion polls ranking you below head lice and colonoscopies in popularity.
There is history here. The Gingrich Revolution ran aground when it tried to govern from Congress, losing badly to President Clinton over government shutdowns. Nor did the modern insurgents do any better in the 2011 debt-ceiling and 2012 fiscal-cliff showdowns with Obama.
Obama's postelection arrogance and intransigence can put you in a fighting mood. I sympathize. But I'm tending toward the realist view: Don't force the issue when you don't have the power.
The debt-ceiling deadline is coming up. You can demand commensurate spending cuts, the usual, reasonable Republican offer. But you won't get them. Obama will hold out. And, at the eleventh hour, you will have to give in as you get universally blamed for market gyrations and threatened credit downgrades.
The more prudent course would be to find some offer that cannot be refused, a short-term trade-off utterly unassailable and straightforward. For example, offer to extend the debt ceiling through, say, May 1, in exchange for the Senate delivering a budget by that date -- after four years of lawlessly refusing to produce one.
Not much. But it would (a) highlight the Democrats' fiscal recklessness, (b) force Senate Democrats to make public their fiscal choices and (c) keep the debt ceiling alive as an ongoing pressure point for future incremental demands.
Go small and simple. Forget about forcing tax reform or entitlement cuts or anything major. If Obama wants to recklessly expand government, well, as he says, he won the election.
Republicans should simply block what they can. Further tax hikes, for example. The general rule is: From a single house of Congress you can resist but you cannot impose.
Aren't you failing the country, say the insurgents? Answer: The country chose Obama. He gets four years.
Want to save the Republic? Win the next election. Don't immolate yourself trying to save liberalism from itself. If your conservative philosophy is indeed right, winning will come. As Margaret Thatcher said serenely of the Labor Party socialists she later overthrew: "They always run out of other people's money."