The indispensable religion and politics reporter Sarah Posner has been fairly lonely in pointing out that survey data show more than half of Tea Partiers—those new Republican recruits who supposedly don't care about social issues—identifying with the religious right. For example, at least two-thirds of Tea Partiers oppose abortion; the new, Mike Castle-less Republican majority in the House is, with a handful of exceptions, pro-life. *
"In the current reporting environment," wrote Posner, "figures like [Michele] Bachmann are portrayed as tea partiers first, and then the reporter looks beneath for the religion."
In order for there to be a real split in the new GOP, something bigger than a fight for attention or some backbone-stiffening, there needs to be a disagreement on some issue big enough to distract the party from its mission. It needs to be a big enough distraction to make Republicans, Tea Partiers, libertarians, evangelicals, Bo Derek, and everyone else temporarily pause the war on Barack Obama's policies.
So far, nothing is playing that role. GOProud's nagging approach to the what-should-Republicans-do debate doesn't actually demand that the party change its position on any policies. (GOProud supports "don't ask, don't tell" reform, for example, but that's not on the Republican agenda if it isn't passed in the lame-duck session.) Instead, it's gone after the groups that are protesting a GOProud presence at CPAC 2011, the annual conservative conference, by accusing them of being insufficiently conservative on immigration, Trojan Horsers who want amnesty.
Of course, all of these debates are happening in what's supposed to be the GOP's honeymoon period. Is it possible that, in 2011, some social issue bubbles up out of nowhere, or some Republican introduces social legislation that offends those noble swing voters who gave the GOP a chance this time? Sure, that's sort of what happened with the Terri Schiavo mess. And that's mostly what the economic conservatives are worried about.
But a real fight between the GOP and its new members? A split on foreign policy? A split on social issues? That's not going to happen as long as Barack Obama is president. The Tea Party isn't presenting some infinite challenge that threatens what the GOP establishment does. The Tea Party won its battles with Republicans because its beliefs and priorities were the ones most Republicans had in the first place.
For example. Andrew Ian Dodge remembers a pair of meetings he came to D.C. for, to meet Tea Party activists. The first, early in the movement, was partly about social issues. "About 10 of the questions that day were about social issues," he remembers. After the midterms, though, Dodge returned to D.C. for a Tea Party Patriots meeting/orientation for new members. There was only one question about social issues that time, even though there were more people in the room. When most conservatives say that they need a "three-legged stool" of social, foreign-policy, and economic issues, they mean it deeply enough that—once they win—they don't even need to discuss it.
Correction, Dec. 1, 2010: This article originally stated that without Rep. Mike Castle, the new House majority would be "entirely pro-life." A handful of representatives serving in the next Congress are pro-choice. (Return to the corrected sentence.)