Randall Enos, Cagle Cartoons

Is a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party now underway? CNN’s John Avlon (who wrote Independent Nation: How Centrism Can Change American Politics, one of the best books ever written on American centrist and independent voter politics) think so. The former Florida Governor recently ruffled some GOP feathers by veering from the party line. And a feather that seemed most painfully ruffled was that of Norquist’s:

This is what happens when politics starts looking like a cult: Jeb Bush gets attacked for being a traitor to the conservative cause.

The former Florida governor has been speaking with the freedom of someone not running for office, saying that both his father and Ronald Reagan would have had a hard time in today’s hard-right GOP and questioning the wisdom of Grover Norquist’s absolutist anti-tax pledge.

That set off a fascinating public fight between Bush and Norquist, two faces of competing factions within Republican Party. It is the latest evidence of a growing GOP backlash against the ideological straitjacket Norquist has attempted to impose on governing in the United States.

Political parties can take course corrections and there are signs one may be underway in the GOP where Norquist’s almost religious like hold on Republicans shows signs of slipping:

On one side is a vision of the Republican Party that is committed to reaching out beyond its base with a focus on governing responsibly in the national interest.

In other words: the classic “big tent” where you try to attract independents and Democrats who are not in agreement with or who don’t like their party’s liberal base.

On the other side is a Republican Party driven by ideological activists and special interests, elevating pledges over principled but pragmatic solutions.

In other words: trying to carefully screen who is allowed into the existing tent.

The Norquist pledge commits signers to oppose all tax increases on individuals or businesses in any circumstances as well as changing deductions or credits unless they are revenue neutral.

This skirmish started when Bush was asked about the pledge: “I ran for office three times,” he explained. “The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed the pledge. I cut taxes every year I was governor. I don’t believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people.”

So Jeb became seen as something of a heretic:

The common-sense statement was regarded as a shot across the bow to Norquist, who quickly went on CNN’s “The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer” to push back, saying that Bush had “stepped in it” and “really misspoke and insulted Romney” because Mitt Romney had fallen in line and obediently signed the pledge.

Escalation occurred this week when Bush said, “Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground.” He added, “Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time — they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support,” saying that Reagan “would be criticized for doing the things that he did.”

This statement has the advantage of being both opinion and fact. Reagan achieved his administration’s agenda through cooperation with liberal Democrat Tip O’Neill, the House speaker. There were deep philosophical differences between the two but also a capacity to work together.

Both Reagan and Bush — and for that matter even Barry Goldwater — would be accused of violating a number of litmus tests currently considered deal-breakers by conservatives.

Towards the end of his column which needs to be read in full he writes this:

As it turns out, Norquist has reason to be concerned. It’s not just Jeb Bush. A growing number of Republicans are rejecting his pledge. Oklahoma conservative Sen. Tom Coburn called the pledge’s effective veto of deficit reduction plans “ridiculous” when talking with Erin Burnett on “OutFront.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Tuesday declared his independence from the pledge, saying, “We’re so far in debt, that if you don’t give up some ideological ground, the country sinks.”

Add to those voices seven other Republican U.S. senators — from Maine’s Susan Collins to Iowa’s Chuck Grassley to Wyoming’s John Barrasso — and 11 Republican House members, ranging from centrist New Yorker Richard Hanna to tea party Floridian Allen West.

The bottom line is that a growing number of Republicans are deciding to throw off the ideological straitjacket to get serious about actually reducing the deficit and the debt. It is a courageous move at a time when cultlike group-think dictates that the pledge must be signed or your political career is dead in the water.

The choice between Bush’s and Norquist’s vision of the Republican Party is ultimately no contest at all. It’s the difference between responsible governance and agitated activism, a growing party or a shrinking one. And of course in the end the only pledge that really matters is the Pledge of Allegiance.

I’ve often noted that there are political trends, developments and stories which show why many independent voters happily stay independent voters. Norquist and the almost hypnotic-like hold he has over many Republicans is one of them — and not necessarily only for former RINOS.

Meanwhile, Republican Michael Gearson, writing in the Washington Post
, looks at Jeb Bush’s experience due to some of his other comments. It’s worth an extensive look here as well — since it puts into further context Avlon’s take:

Jeb Bush’s recent field trip to Washington was not pleasant, but it was clarifying — a civics lesson in democracy’s darker side.

On June 1, Bush testified before the House Budget Committee on the topic of entitlement reform. First came an ambush by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — also head of the Democratic National Committee — who delivered a partisan tirade on an obscure spending item that Bush had supported as Florida’s governor. Then Bush ventured to criticize anti-tax pledges, which “outsource your principles and convictions” — comments that Grover Norquist, president of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, immediately attacked as “ignorant” and “embarrassing.”

It was Washington in miniature: a momentous topic treated with the dignity and seriousness of cage boxing. Bush recalls the hearing as a “circus” and “laughable.” “It was not a discussion,” he told me, “but long questions that were really statements.” Bush, who has been reading Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” was struck by the historical contrast. “You might not always like where he came out, but Johnson used power to solve problems.”

And, indeed, anyone who has read the Caro book (I have read it and will review it in the future on TMV) is stuck by the fact that during that era both parties aggressively and assertively argued about issues and problem solving. Today it appears all about search and destroy, sound bite polemics with one seeming underlying goal by partisans: political dominance so on election night they can gleefully rub the other side’s face in it. MORE:

This failure of pragmatism is Bush’s chief criticism of politics in the capital, a case he thinks the press has distorted. “The general thinking among liberal media is that the Republican Party is too conservative. That’s not my point. We have a time of great national need, but we’re lacking the ability to find common ground.”

Bush, who was a decidedly conservative, tax-cutting governor, is not calling for ideological moderation in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller. He is defending the possibility that conservatives and liberals might find productive compromise on the debt crisis. Cooperation to avoid disaster is not the same thing as spinelessness. Bush points to his father and Ronald Reagan as examples of “principled leaders, but who led, who moved on problems.”

“Across the board, on both sides, there is little reward for public officials who find common ground.” Bush finds this particularly disturbing because of the gravity of current challenges — what he describes as “structural problems that leave us on the path of decline.”

“It is not about talking points prepared by 20-somethings, set forth in a ‘gotcha’ debate. It is about 40 cents out of every dollar spent by the government funded by debt. It is not sustainable.”

Bush insists that responsibility for dysfunction in Washington is shared, but not equally. “I’m disgusted by the system. But Democrats are more to blame, because they control the Senate and the presidency. They have not led.” At least Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, he argues, “put a down payment on the problem. But congressional Democrats are using it as a tool to plug Republicans and don’t even offer a budget.” The president received the report of his deficit reduction commission, but, Bush said, “hasn’t uttered the words ‘Simpson’ and ‘Bowles’ in the same sentence again.”

Gearson ends with this:

The two most recent Republican presidential nominees are Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney. Republicans in Congress are led by House Speaker John Boehner — who attempted a budget deal including tax increases — and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. These are hardly the four horsemen of the tea party apocalypse.

But Jeb Bush is correct in the outline of his main argument. The debt crisis is an existential threat to the American way of life. Addressing this vast structural problem will require a grand bargain that includes entitlement reform and higher revenue. Those who rule out the possibility of compromise as a matter of ideology are undermining the public interest. And if the outcome of this debate is determined by figures such as Norquist and Wasserman Schultz, all hope is lost.

What has happened to our politics? It’s this: increasingly our politics seems to boil down to choosing between Fox News or MSNBC.

And there are voters who don’t like either.

John Cole, The Scranton Times-Tribune

JOE GANDELMAN, Editor-In-Chief
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