ABC The Drum Online

By Adam Lockyer

Obamacare was the trigger rather than the cause of Washington’s recent fiscal battles. The same way a high school teacher might clip a student over the ear for arguing that the assassination of some prince in Serbia caused the First World War, we must be careful to properly identify and separate triggers from causes.

The real cause of the latest political crisis to grip Washington is the power struggle within the Republican Party.

A deep rift has appeared within the GOP. On the one side, there are the Pragmatists. On the other is the insurgent Tea Party rump. Some paint these camps as the “moderates” versus the “radicals”, but this characterisation overlooks the fact that both sides largely agree on policy goals. Republicans of all stripes rail against federal government spending and the deficit. There is also broad consensus that the solution is to cut government spending rather than raise taxes.

It’s in relation to tactics where the deep divisions emerge.

The Tea Party followers believe that politics should be about expressions of fidelity to the Republican Party’s political ideology. Advancing the policy agenda through legislative compromise is viewed as a betrayal of those principles, which they hold to be absolute truth.

The pragmatic majority take the opposite view. To them, all politics is compromise. The Republican Party’s tactics, according to the Pragmatists, should be to continually edge closer to their ideological objectives through slow, often tedious, legislative negotiation and compromise.

Although the Tea Party rump of the GOP remains the minority, its rapidly growing power within the GOP has been incredibly destabilising and disproportionate to its size.

This has been for two main reasons.

First, it was the Tea Party that forged the debt ceiling into a political weapon. It was the first to learn how to take it as a hostage and use it to extract small, but significant, concessions from the Obama Administration. This tactic largely worked in 2011, when the Obama Administration agreed to more cuts in spending to avoid economic disaster. These early successes gave the Tea Party, and their tactics, greater credibility.

Second, the Tea Party fiercely attacks other Republicans. Insurgent Tea Partiers terrorise the majority Pragmatists by threatening to run their own candidates against any Republican who dares to vote against them. In many cases, Pragmatists are more threatened by Republican-on-Republican primaries than the later Republican-on-Democrat general elections. The redder their congressional district, the less they can afford to be outflanked by the Tea Party on their Right.

Tea Party groups, such as Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action for America, wear their contempt for the “establishment” Republicans on their sleeves. They actively seek out Republican officeholders whom they view as too moderate and attempt to oust them in primary challenges. Well organised and funded, these groups are the Tea Party’s militias in this civil war. They have been successfully terrorising Pragmatist officeholders into submission.

That was until the government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis. In the 2013 fiscal battles, we saw a change in the Pragmatists. There was a greater willingness by the Pragmatists to stand up to the Tea Party. The battlelines were there for everyone to see.

On Wednesday, Representative Charles Boustany (R-LA) gave the Tea Partiers a tongue lashing, telling the National Journal: “I’m not sure they’re Republicans and I’m not sure they’re conservative.” Similar sentiments have been heard across the Pragmatist camp.

The moderate rank-and-file’s opinion of the Tea Party matches that of their leaders. A Pew survey found that moderate Republicans’ favourable opinion of their Tea Party comrades dropped from 46 per cent in June to 27 per cent, today. This is a staggering drop of 19 points in only four months.

Senator Ted Cruz (Republican from Texas) has emerged as the face of the Tea Party’s efforts to block funding for Obamacare. The same Pew survey found that in June, 47 per cent of Tea Partiers had a favourable view of him. Today, it is 74 percent favourable and only 8 percent unfavourable. In contrast, those identifying as non-Tea Party Republicans have moved in the opposite direction. The number of them possessing an unfavourable opinion of Cruz has almost doubled from 16 to 31 per cent.

The 2013 fiscal battles were over the heart and soul of the GOP. They were about power. Its true cause lies with the Tea Partiers’ belief that they had accumulated enough power to take on the majority “establishment” Republicans. Like poor Archduke Ferdinand, if this battle hadn’t been fought over Obamacare, then something else would have sparked the powder keg that is the current GOP.

Ultimately, the Pragmatists completely capitulated to the Democrats and stared down the Tea Partiers. They did collapse like a house of cards, but they did so by standing up to their more ideologically driven brethren. For the Pragmatists it was both a defeat and a victory. For the Tea Partiers, there was only defeat.

It’s still too early to foresee the outcome of the GOP’s civil war. The Pragmatists might be sufficiently shocked that anyone could be so committed to an ideology that they are willing to bring certain economic ruin to their country. They might also be buoyed by successfully staring them down. This might, in turn, encourage them to go on the offensive.

On the other side of the trenches, the Tea Party might have taken a blow, but their supporters seem to be as energised as ever. They have a groundswell of support, funding and an institutional base. They are likely to regroup before charging back in numbers.

One thing is for certain. The 2014-midterm Republican primaries are going to be the most interesting we have seen for a long while.

This article originally appeared on ABC The Drum Online.