The Revolt of the Elites

For the longest time, Democrats were the party of infighting and disunity, whose squabbling never failed to find its way into the news. It's a grim inside joke among liberals that the most common headline in the political media is "Democrats in Disarray." But it hasn't been that way for a while. In fact, perhaps the most important political dynamic of the current era is the conflict within the previously monolithic Republican party. Not that there wasn't always tension between the Republican establishment, whose primary concern was laissez-faire economics, and the conservative foot soldiers spread across the country, who cared much more about social issues. But open warfare between the two was rare.

Not these days, though. And after a couple of years of the establishment running scared, today they can celebrate (if that's the right word) a momentary victory. Yesterday, Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill passed by the legislature there that would have made it legal to deny services to gay people as long as the one doing the discriminating cited their religious beliefs. The veto itself wasn't really a shock—Brewer is much more a malleable politician attuned to public opinion than a Tea Party true believer. But the pressure she was under was truly remarkable.

It was only a few years ago that Republicans saw gay-bashing as the ticket to electoral victories on every level. And "religious liberty" was supposed to be a fabulous way for them to undermine liberal policy making. But just look at who came out against the Arizona bill. Both the state's Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake. Mitt Romney. D.C Comics supervillain and Florida governor Rick Scott. All kinds of Arizona businesses. The NFL. Newt Gingrich, for pete's sake.

The reason this revolt of the elites happened is pretty simple: national Republicans understand that the party's image as a bunch of intolerant, vindictive right-wing nuts—in other words, the idea that the Tea Party is the GOP—is bad for its electoral prospects, and makes it more difficult to win every future election. Much more urgently, there's a mid-term congressional election coming up in nine months, and the last thing they want is to have it turn on issues like gay rights and immigration. The plan is just to hope the economy doesn't improve and keep saying that Obamacare is a disaster. Combined with their baseline advantage (the opposition party usually does better in off-year elections, and Republicans, with their older and wealthier voters, have a turnout advantage in those elections as well), that could be enough to enable them to win back the Senate.

I wouldn't be surprised if in the last few days, Brewer got a couple of quiet phone calls from GOP bigwigs, explaining that this law was a headache the party didn't need. Combined with the evidence that it would do damage to her state, it wasn't a tough decision. But at the same time, it would be a mistake to make too much out of this one case. It isn't as though the Republican elites have routed the Tea Party once and for all. There are still Tea Party primary challengers striking fear in the hearts of incumbent Republicans. That tension still simmers, and it's going to keep simmering for some time.

Just today the New York Times is out with a poll showing that a hefty 42 percent of Republicans say they're "mostly discouraged" about the future of the Republican party. The numbers are almost the same among Republican moderates and Republican conservatives, though I suspect for opposite reasons: the conservatives are discouraged because the party isn't giving them everything they want, and the moderates are discouraged because the party is giving the conservatives too much.

In a rather vivid contrast, only 20 percent of Democrats say they're mostly discouraged about the future of their party. A few years ago, you could never have imagined such a thing.

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