When the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) met in Washington D.C. at the beginning of December, it attracted two of the biggest stars of the conservative movement -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).
ALEC is the Koch-inspired, corporate-backed non-profit that mocks the idea of conservatives believing in local control and states' rights by spreading carbon-copied legislation to all 50 states that crushes workers' rights, makes it easier to abuse animals and guts the Affordable Care Act.
The shadowy group that attracts hundreds of state legislators to its frequent posh gatherings and sends them back to their state capitols with boilerplate legislation operated blissfully and successfully outside the public eye until the death of Trayvon Martin.
Several corporations -- including Coca-Cola, General Electric and Amazon -- quit ALEC when it became clear the group had pushed the legislation that allows individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves without any requirement to retreat. Since then the non-profit has struggled with fundraising but was still able to attract Ryan and Cruz to its summit. And Cruz told the gathered attendees exactly what they wanted to hear.
"I'll tell you this," he said. "My advice to ALEC is very, very simple: Stand your ground."
Good old Ted Cruz -- willing to invoke the law that may have led to the death of an unarmed teenager to empower his corporate allies.
Less than two weeks later, Cruz and Ryan were at separate podiums, taking opposite sides in what some are calling a "GOP Civil War."
The Texas senator is publicly opposing the Wisconsin congressman's budget deal, which eases the pain of the automatic sequester cuts while increasing some fees and asking military personnel and federal workers to contribute more to their retirement.
The agreement is $27 billion lower than what had been put forward in the original Ryan budget, which made him the champion of the far right for his willingness to propose drastic, cruel cuts while cutting taxes for the rich. But it funds Obamacare for two years and spends $33 billion more than it would if the sequester were untouched -- $195 billion less than what the president proposed in his budget.
It's a compromise. And nobody is supposed to love compromises.
"Look, in the minority you don't have the burden of governing," Ryan said, defending his deal from criticism leveled by Senate Republicans.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was far more blunt in his criticism of the outside groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks that love Ted Cruz and opposed the deal before it was even announced.
"They are using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals," the Speaker said. "This is ridiculous."
"Frankly, I just think that they have lost all credibility," he added the next day.
Suddenly it seemed that a rift everyone knew existed in the Republican Party had gone public and Ryan and Boehner were now willing to take on the extremist wing of their party to make sure actual governance gets done. But what's really happened is that the Tea Party movement and the outside groups that fundraise and lobby on behalf of it have lost their usefulness to the Republican Party -- at least temporarily.
But are there actual divisions in policy between Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz?
Maybe slight ones.
Both want to repeal Obamacare and gut the federal budget. Both oppose abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. Both support ALEC's effort to make state legislatures a place where multinational corporations get their whims rubber-stamped.
They currently disagree on one thing -- tactics.
Cruz led the movement that made October's government shutdown possible. Ryan is currently trying his best to avoid another shutdown.
But in 2011 the congressman was behind the debt-limit hostage situation and reportedly rejected a "grand bargain" that would have actually cut benefits to Medicare and Social Security in hopes of defeating President Obama and enacting even more cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
Having voted for everything George W. Bush wanted -- all the spending, tax cuts for the rich and unfunded wars and expansion of government -- Paul Ryan is a verifiable hypocrite.
If he actually cared about balancing the budget, he wouldn't have voted to get rid of the first balanced budget we had in generations as soon as he got the chance. He could have forever eliminated any deficit/debt concerns we have now by simply agreeing to get rid of tax breaks for the rich and corporations.
You know Paul Ryan doesn't actually care about the deficit.
He is a boilerplate conservative who believes in cutting government to stymie its effectiveness when a Democrat is in the White House. He's also for cutting taxes and spending profligately when there's a Republican president, ensuring that the economy grows and there will be even more to cut when a Democrat is back is in power.
This hypocrisy may enrage Democrats but it's made him one of the most popular members of the Republican Party -- and a serious frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Cruz is part of the opposition that can declare it's for cutting even when a Republican is in the White House -- because he's never had to prove it. His claims of conservative purity and willingness to oppose the party establishment has made him a hero of the base, who have opened up their wallets to rain down their support.
But it's not the grassroots money that wins majorities for the GOP.
It's the Chamber of Commerce and billionaire funders who give Karl Rove hundreds of millions to spend each cycle. These funders saw what happened when Speaker Boehner and Ryan went along with the Tea Party in October -- and they don't like what it did to the economy or the GOP brand.
John Boehner and Paul Ryan cannot afford another government shutdown. Ted Cruz can.
These men will agree on policy nine out of 10 times. They disagree on this budget deal and they'll probably disagree if Boehner and Ryan do the bidding of funders who would actually want to win the presidency again and pass immigration reform.
Ronald Reagan used to say, "Somebody who agrees with me 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally, not a 20 percent traitor."
But in today's GOP, the best way to soak the base for scads of cash is to call your enemy a traitor, even if he's a Republican.
Speaker Boehner is just returning the favor on behalf of his funders.
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