The Chris McDaniel-Thad Cochran showdown in Mississippi is the latest example of the jagged divide through the Republican Party. But it's far from the only dramatic contrast we are seeing this month between the rabble-rouser caucus, which views the federal government as a teardown ready for the wrecking ball, and Republicans who see problems and want to solve them.
The two faces of the GOP were never more in evidence than in the days leading up to the minuscule Cochran victory that settled the identity of the 2014 Senate nominee, but little else.
In one corner, there was the Faith & Freedom Coalition gathering of conservatives in Washington. "We are an island of reality in a sea of fantasy here," coalition president Ralph Reed said with a smile, as he opened the proceedings and introduced Monica Crowley, the first speaker.
Crowley, a Fox News contributor, online opinion editor of The Washington Times and host of a syndicated talk show, seemed determined to turn Reed's statement on its head. She called President Barack Obama a Marxist and said that "every day of this presidency has been an impeachable offense." She offered a description of "leftists" that might amuse them: "They rarely falter, and they never fail ... The left knows exactly what it's doing." In a less entertaining vein, she also said the left is "at war with America" and engaged in "a deliberate takedown of America." Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton said Obama was weakening the republic by the day.
Their language echoed sentiments from former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz in a Wall Street Journal critique so harsh that White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett called it "unprecedented." "President Obama seems determined to leave office ensuring he has taken America down a notch," the Cheneys wrote. "President Obama is on track to securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom."
Yet Crowley, Bolton and the Cheneys were not the only Republicans speaking out last week. GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut proposed a gas tax hike to supply a steady funding stream for roads, bridges and other transportation needs. Henry Paulson, Treasury secretary during the George W. Bush administration, proposed a tax on carbon emissions that he said would reduce the economic and environmental risks of climate change.
Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado, meanwhile, introduced a plan for a two-question federal financial aid form for prospective college students. The two senators cited research showing that the current 108-question form discourages teens from applying, and that two bits of information — family size and income — would produce much the same results.
There are some moments on the campaign trail that you never forget. One of them for me was at a Hillary Clinton rally just before the 2008 New Hampshire primary. The raucous shouts, claps and foot stomps reached their peak when she pledged to simplify the college student aid form. Who knew that would be such a crowd-pleaser?
Alas, announcing your intent to shorten a student aid form is not what rouses the conservative base. The intensity goes to those who, like Sen. Ted Cruz, attack Obama for infringing on religious liberty and try to shut down the government over Obamacare. Or those who, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, decide the Common Core education standards they once supported are a disaster and must be tossed on the ash heap. Or those who, like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, look at the Mississippi runoff and muse about a third party.
Judging by congressional campaigns and Capitol Hill activity this year, such a third party would be enthusiastic about eliminating the education department, the IRS, the Export-Import Bank and other chunks of the government; reluctant to rush cash to states and localities crushed by disaster; and hostile to compromise across the board. The impulse is to throw out or tear down, not to improve and inch toward better.
You can see it in the momentum against the Common Core and the continuing insistence that Obamacare must be repealed rather than fixed. And you can see it at all levels of the party. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said early this month that the two parties should come together to overhaul the IRS. On Wednesday he said on the conservative blog RedState that he wants to abolish it.
The GOP is two parties inside of one these days. The Republican establishment and most GOP presidential prospects, correctly fearing the consequences of fragmentation, are giving unity their best shot. It's a smart political choice that, unfortunately for the rest of us, relies on continuing negativism and paralysis in the face of problems that we must find the will and means to solve.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.