Great new media meme: Big win for GOP will fracture the party

What’s the best metric to determine whether a wave election is coming? The generic Congressional ballot margins in polls certainly can give us an indication, as can presidential approval ratings and polling from different states. Sudden changes in policy direction might be another signal for those paying attention. Chris Cillizza wonders how one even defines a wave election:

By a slightly-more-specific definition, a wave election is dominated by a single national issue and where a party not only makes substantial gains in House, Senate and gubernatorial races but also has candidates win who, in a more neutral national environment, would have no chance to do so. Stu Rothenberg, a Fix friend and political handicapper extraordinaire, offers this handy description:

For me, the “political wave” metaphor evokes the image of a surging ocean wave that is much larger than normal and deposits debris that otherwise would not have made it ashore without the violent surf.

Politically, that translates into an election surge that is strong enough to sweep candidates who wouldn’t ordinarily win – because of the make-up of their districts or the limited funding of their campaigns, for example – to victory.

Using that definition of a wave election makes it considerably more debatable whether 2014 is (or will become) one.

Well, whether one wants to call it a wave or not — and by Rothenberg’s calculus, 2006 might not qualify — Republicans appear to be on the cusp of a very large win nationally. In fact, that’s not even really in question anymore, but whether or not the win will be large enough to take control of the Senate. That would require a flip in Senate seats equal to 2006 and 2010, the latter of which was definitely a wave election. Still, even with all of the national indicators showing fair winds and sunny skies for the GOP, each race is its own contest, and it’s not clear yet just how big this win might be.

Fortunately, we have another metric — the media’s Sour Grapes Index, in which analysts posit that a big win is really a loss, or that a loss is really a big win. That metric got a boost today with separate but similar articles in The Hill and National Journal predicting a Republican civil war after a big win on Tuesday. The Hill headlines Alexander Bolton’s piece, “Civil war looms for GOP”:

The problem for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders is that they will also face pressure to govern — which could involve cooperating with President Obama to keep the government operating and turn legislation into law.

They also must contend with a Senate map that will force the GOP to defend 24 seats in 2016, compared to just 10 for Democrats. Republicans facing reelection include senators from New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and other states where Democrats could have an advantage — particularly in a presidential election year when turnout is high.

McConnell this week appeared to manage expectations for Republican rule, when he cautioned it would be difficult to repeal ObamaCare as long as Obama is in office.

“Well, it would take 60 votes in the Senate — nobody thinks we’re going to have 60 Republicans — and it would take a presidential signature, and no one thinks we’re going to get that,” he told Fox News host Neil Cavuto. “So the question is: What can you do about it?”

McConnell suggested it would be better to go after unpopular parts of the law rather than a full repeal, a position some conservatives saw as a capitulation.

If that’s the basis of a civil war, then it’s not going to be much of a battle. Even if the Republicans ran the table on Tuesday, they wouldn’t have enough votes to override a Barack Obama veto on a repeal of ObamaCare. Going after it in the budget is nearly impossible, since much of its funding is statutory rather than appropriation-based, as was the case last year in the attempt to force a standoff over the FY2014 budget. The only way to repeal ObamaCare now is to maintain control of Congress and elect a Republican President in 2016, and nearly everyone understands that.

Norm Ornstein writes at NJ that winning the Senate will splinter the party, in a battle for the GOP’s soul:

The desire of McCarthy and other GOP leaders to avoid a characterization of their party as the party of no—of obstructionism but no ideas—by showing an ability to govern, will come into conflict with a GOP base that wants to continue the take-no-prisoners approach that worked so well in 2010, and again, if this scenario prevails, in 2014. And the presidential campaign will give added traction to the primary and caucus voters who are dominated by the hardest of hardliners, and the collection of presidential candidates who will pound away against the Common Core, immigration legislation, any taxes, or any spending except for defense and the border.

I do not think this means total gridlock. The ability to pass some things that are a bit below the radar, like trade and prison reform, is clear. There is a smaller chance of passing things like an infrastructure bank, or an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit. There is a smaller chance yet of enacting some form of bipartisan tax reform. What about the kind of deal Rob Portman pitched to The Atlantic’s Molly Ball—acceptance of the Keystone pipeline in return for a bipartisan agreement on reductions in carbon emissions? Try to get that through the House!

Finally, I have to at least mention the “I” word. I have talked off the record to some aides to tea-party Republicans in the House, who say that they are getting a lot of push from their activist voters to impeach the president. They, like their leaders, know how catastrophic that would be for Republicans heading into 2016 and will do what they can to head off any such move by hotheads. But if we assume that the president, determined to enhance and extend his legacy, implements major executive orders on immigration and climate change, there will be howls of outrage from the base and many lawmakers, and the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Erick Erickson, and Laura Ingraham will not be holding them back. More than likely, neither would Ted Cruz. Another challenge for House and Senate Republican leaders to keep their party from veering off the edge.

Both parties have their challenges. But the most interesting ones to watch will be those between and among a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and a set of Republican presidential candidates pulling the party’s center of gravity further to the right—meaning the tension between setting out and making concrete a positive agenda for governing and the pressure to continue to block and obstruct will be very, very high.

None of this is far off base, of course, and some of it will be interesting to watch unfold. But the overall premise assumes that the GOP hasn’t been dealing with these struggles already. Of course they have; in fact, it’s been a very public process ever since losing the 2012 election. We’ve been hearing about Republican civil wars, the Tea Party splitting away, and a fatal schism between the so-called establishment and the grassroots for at least that long, and perhaps as long as the first budget showdown after the Republican majority took its place in the House in January 2011.

And yet here the Republicans are, not just holding that majority but threatening to take control of the Senate while Democrats stumble over the ineptitude of Barack Obama and his White House team. The GOP will have some tough choices to make, certainly, if they gain control of the Senate, in some of the areas that Ornstein notes. But they will also have pushed Democrats out of control of the entire legislative agenda and stripped Obama of his shield against GOP initiatives reaching his desk. His agenda and those of his party, which Obama explicitly declared were on the ballot, would have been repudiated, and with it any pretense of having a mandate.

Certainly the GOP would rather be in that position than losing another cycle, which would be much more likely to create a schism/civil war between the coalitions on the Right. The better question will be whether that happens to Democrats, who are now experiencing similar tensions between progressive activists and more practical “establishment” figures of their own, along with the added baggage of an increasingly unpopular President.

Instead, the media seems to be focused on trying to sell a Republican win as a Republican loss. The more we see the increase in the Sour Grapes index, the more likely a wave election appears.