The ongoing battle over the federal budget and the role of government in America has certainly clarified the fundamental difference in the visions of the Republican and Democratic Parties -- and the progressive and conservative forces within American society.
At the same time, however, the budget battle has also opened up two gaping rifts within the Republican Party itself. The first threatens to do massive damage to the GOP's election chances in 2012. The second may cause the collapse of its 2011 legislative agenda.
First is the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the "Tea Party" class of GOP "young turks" -- who want to go for broke to destroy the New Deal and impose their social agenda -- and those elements of the Party whose highest concern is winning general elections.
More "moderate" Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Dick Lugar are terrified of being defeated in primaries by Tea Party insurgents who are eager to take advantage of any deviation from ultra-right orthodoxy. But they know very well that purist right wing positions like ending Medicare and privatizing Social Security are the kiss of death in general elections.
Last week, Newt Gingrich became the poster boy for the corrosive effect of this conflict, as the nation watched him pleading for forgiveness from the right for his characterization of Paul Ryan's Republican budget as "extremist right wing social engineering." Even though Gingrich himself remains a hard core right wing ideologue, he has had an experience many of the Tea Party newcomers have not: he knows what it's like to lose.
Gingrich is smart enough to know that it's one thing to prevent people from achieving their aspirations -- it's quite another to take something away that they already have -- that they've already paid for -- like Medicare and Social Security. He can read the polls that show almost 80% of the electorate wants Congress to keep its hands off Medicare and Social Security. And almost as many oppose cutting or restructuring Medicaid. Remember that Medicaid not only provides health care for the working poor, and children, but also provides nursing home care -- and home care that lets seniors and the disabled stay in their own homes instead of institutions.
Of course it's not just Gingrich that is caught in the vise between primaries dominated by well-organized right wing ideologues and a general electorate that has no use for candidates who want to abolish Medicare or defund Planned Parenthood. The entire Republican presidential field will have to cope with this virtually unsolvable conundrum every day during the upcoming primary season.
The same difficulty faces GOP Senate challengers and House incumbents. Sixty one D battles for House seats will be fought in districts won by Barack Obama in 2008 -- and fourteen were won by Obama in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004. In the 2010 elections, seniors voted Republican by 21%. Now that the Republican leadership and Ryan's "young guns" have rounded up all but four members of the GOP House caucus and got them -- incredibly -- to cast a public vote to abolish Medicare -- don't expect seniors to flock to their cause again in 2012.
And in case the Republicans didn't notice, it's not just seniors who strongly oppose abolishing Medicare. All of those 45- to 50-year-olds who would be most directly affected and have paid their Medicare taxes all of these years aren't too happy either.
Before this year is done, many Republican office holders and candidates will feel as though they're on a political rack. On the one side they will find themselves and their colleagues pilloried at town meetings for voting to abolish Medicare. On the other, they will watch those who are bold enough to distance themselves from the Republican budget "Koolaid," smacked back into line by Tea Party zealots.
This of course will be great news for Democrats in 2012. Many Republicans are taking the path of the least short-term pain in order to avoid humiliation in a primary. They are refusing to distance themselves from Ryan's politically radioactive proposals. And of course candidates like Gingrich who try to head for a radioactive free zone -- and then have to reverse themselves -- look as though they have cast their principles to the winds. In politics, appearing to flip flop -- to have no core commitment to values -- is often the most toxic quality of all. Remember, Republicans beat John Kerry by -- erroneously -- convincing many swing voters that he was a "flip flopper."
Already we've seen the power of the Medicare issue to drive swing seniors into the Democratic column. In the Special election for heavily Republican New York's 26th Congressional District, Democrat Kathy Huchel has actually surged ahead of Republican Jane Corwin in last-minute polling -- mainly on the strength of the Medicare issue.
But the Medicare issue doesn't just move swing seniors. The Republican Budget -- coupled with President Obama's response -- has drawn clear lines between the Democratic and Republican visions for our society. That clear distinction has already reinvigorated the Democratic Party base and will serve to rally Democratic turnout in 2012.
Paul Ryan has given Democrats the gift that will keep on giving right through November, 2012.
But the second great conflict in the Republican Party will have an impact in just a few months. That's the conflict between the real base of the GOP -- Wall Street and America's corporate elite -- and the Tea Party bomb throwers who are willing to risk allowing America to default on its debts to advance their ideological goals.
Now don't get me wrong -- much of the Wall Street/corporate CEO crowd would love to abolish Medicare and force draconian cuts in the Federal budget so they could have yet another round of tax cuts and free themselves of "meddlesome" government "regulation." They would love to be freed to devise exotic trading schemes, sell worthless mortgage securities, decertify unions and slash middle class salaries, defund public education and all of the rest.
But they're not interested in risking the collapse of the economy, and the markets to get it. They are smart enough to prefer the billions they have in their hot hands, to the risk that their portfolios will plummet in value once again as they did in 2008. And that is exactly what might happen if their erstwhile Tea Party allies force House Speaker John Boehner to play chicken with the nation's debt limit in order to pressure the Democrats to scrap big portions of the New Deal.
Wall Street is terrified by guys like Illinois' Republican Congressman Joe Walsh who said that default wouldn't be so bad -- that we should be thinking "outside of the box." Or Congressman Devin Nunes who thinks that a default would benefit America by forcing politicians to go through a "period of crisis". These "default deniers" just scare the bejezus out of the investor/CEO class.
But Boehner has a whole flock of these folks in his caucus, and before the default battle is over he may look like a pancake -- squeezed by Wall Street on the one side, and by his Tea Party crew on the other.
It is likely that whatever deal to avoid default ultimately emerges from the Biden talks, will ultimately pass with more Democratic than Republicans votes in both houses. That means that the deal cannot contain poison pill proposals that are completely unacceptable to most mainstream Democrats. But that, in turn, may very well be unacceptable to the right-wing ideologues who see the debt-ceiling vote as their one chance to make big changes in the federal budget.
If Boehner allows a vote on such a proposal -- and it does indeed pass with more Democrats than Republicans -- he is afraid there may be a mutiny and he may no longer swing the big House gavel when the smoke clears.
This kind of division massively weakens the Republican's bargaining position. As the prospect of default barrels toward us, looming larger and larger in the weeks ahead, the pressure from the Wall Street/CEO gang will grown unbearable.
The fact of the matter is that the Party's big dogs will not allow Boehner to pull the plug on the grenade that sends the economy back into a major recession and causes markets to plummet. And of course, if they did, the political consequences for the GOP in 2012 would be catastrophic.
Had the Republicans simply continued to scream about deficits (as hypocritical as that may seem) they would have had a much stronger hand. Instead they handed Democrats a politically iconic example of exactly what the world would be like if they had their way -- abolishing Medicare.
Now the Party's candidates and its legislative leadership are divided, confused and in disarray.
In this situation, Democrats and Progressives need to remember one important axiom: when you've got them on the run, that's the time to chase them.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a Partner in the firm Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.