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Column: A Fight for the Soul of the Republican Party

In a revealing interview with The New Republic that was published over the weekend, President Barack Obama laid plain the strategic choice that he believes faces the Republican Party heading into 2014 — and beyond.

“Until Republicans feel that there’s a real price to pay for them just saying no and being obstructionist, you’ll probably see at least a number of them arguing that we should keep on doing it,” the president said. “It worked for them in the 2010 election cycle, and I think there are those who believe that it can work again.”

While GOP strategists might dismiss Obama’s analysis of the way forward for their side as overly simplistic, there is considerable truth in what he says. And the direction the party decides to head on that very question will be a telling indicator of the nature of both the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 Republican primary fight.

Remember back to the immediate aftermath of the 2008 election? Some Republicans, stunned by the breadth and depth of their defeats, began to talk about the need to reimagine the party to fit the modern American electorate.

Then came Obama’s economic stimulus plan and his health care law — not to mention the bank bailouts. The Tea Party was born and, with it, those within the GOP who regarded the 2008 election as a fluke won the day. The Republican Party united around its opposition to Obama and was rewarded (in spades) for doing so in the 2010 midterm elections.

(Sidebar: Many people — read: Democrats — blame Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for articulating the “opposition at all costs strategy.” While McConnell did say the goal for the GOP and its voters was to make Obama a “one-term president,” he did so mere days before the 2010 election and, therefore, was not the strategic father, for good or bad, of the oppose-at-all-costs approach. Besides that, what McConnell was saying was that to accomplish the goals Republicans believed in, Obama would have to be removed as president, which is a somewhat indisputable notion.)

Riding high on that “oppose, oppose, oppose” strategy, Republicans galloped into the 2012 presidential election full of bravado and apparent momentum. Then the strategy started to fail. As much as Republican presidential candidates tried to shine a light on Obama and his policies, the debate kept coming back to Mitt Romney, his view of the world and what he would do as president. And Romney never came close to fully articulating that alternative vision.

Now, four years after some Republicans were pushing for a re-examination of what the party believes and why they believe it, it appears as though that reckoning is under way.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in a speech last week at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, said that “if this election taught us anything, it is that we will not win elections by simply pointing out the failures of the other side.” And already people including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (like Jindal, a potential 2016 candidate) are pushing to break the partisan logjam on overhauling the country’s immigration laws.

The question for Republicans is whether that spirit — voiced by Jindal and Rubio among others — holds steady amid what will be an epic fight over debt and spending over these next few months. And it may not. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, for example, said Sunday that he expects Congress to fail to reach a deal to avoid automatic across-the-board cuts known as the sequester.

The easiest path for Republicans will be to define themselves wholly in opposition to the president and what he proposes. And, such a path — as demonstrated by the 2010 midterm elections — could well have short-term political benefits.

But to sustain and to thrive as a party, Republicans almost certainly need to cut deals on matters of political necessity (immigration is the most obvious) while simultaneously staking out new ground with a rigorous — and positive — set of policy proposals.

The top leaders of the party are well aware of that reality. But do they have enough control over the rank and file to put it into practice between now and 2014?

Time will tell.

Chris Cillizza writes for The Washington Post.