How deeply divided is the GOP?

The Pew Research Center is out with a study that, as characterized by the Washington Post, shows “the GOP faces continued instability because of profoundly different views on some issues held by those who identify with the party.” To me, the study presents a more mixed picture.

The Pew study identifies two main Republican groups — the “business conservatives” and the “steadfast conservatives.” It finds significant commonalities between the two. Both overwhelmingly disapprove of President Obama’s job performance and of Obamacare. And both believe with near unanimity that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.

The two groups are united in their opposition to the Common Core educational standards, their support for a strong military, their belief that there is no solid evidence of global warming, and their perception that efforts to protect the environment have gone too far and that environmental laws have cost the economy too many jobs.

Finally, and significantly, only a very small percentage of each group expresses disagreement with the Tea Party movement.

So where are the disagreements? For one thing, an overwhelming majority of steadfast conservatives say too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, and these conservatives are split evenly on whether the economic system unfairly favors the powerful. By contrast, only about one-third of business conservatives say big corporations have too much power, and by 2-to-1 say the economic system is fair to most people rather than tilted in favor of the powerful.

But what are the policy ramifications of this divergence of attitude? Given their distrust of government, neither faction is likely to push for a large-scale increase in the regulation of large companies or for government-mandated redistribution of income. Indeed, the steadfast conservatives are themselves evenly split on whether the system unfairly favors the powerful, according to the study.

The split in attitudes toward business will continue to generate hotly contested primary campaign. But it doesn’t seem likely to create significantly instability in the GOP. The Democrats, it seems to me, face at least as much of a rift between “occupy Wall Street” sympathizers and “business liberals.”

The other major divergence is, of course, over immigration. Steadfast conservatives overwhelming believe that immigrants burden the country and take jobs away from Americans. Eight in 10 say that growing numbers of immigrants threaten traditional values.

Business conservatives, by contrast, believe that immigrants strengthen American society.

On the big question, business conservatives strongly support a path to citizenship. Staunch conservatives are evenly divided, according to Pew.

If this is true, Republicans will eventually get behind a path to citizenship, as they almost have done. I suspect, however, that the study underestimates the opposition to a path to citizenship by staunch conservatives. If I’m right, this issue will continue to divide the GOP.

Finally, on the issue of national defense, business conservatives favor active participation by the U.S. in foreign affairs, which they believe tends to be helpful, both to our interests and to the world at-large. Staunch conservatives favor a less active role and believe U.S. involvement makes things worse.

But both groups say that military strength, not diplomacy, is the path to ensuring peace. And both believe that overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorism.

It seems to me, therefore, that the two sides probably can co-exist through a “peace through strength agenda” that strikes some sort of case-by-case compromise on the extent of U.S. interventionism.

The Republican Party will certainly face challenges in staying together. But on the whole, the possibility of a split or a debilitating fissure, strikes me as less likely now than it did a year or two ago.


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