05/12/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

There Is No Meaningful Difference Between Tea Party and 'Establishment' Republicans

This weekend, Marco Rubio weighed in firmly on the great scientific issue of our time -- anthropogenic climate change. Rubio told ABC's Jonathan Karl that he does not believe in the "notion" that climate change is caused by human activity, at least not in the way "these scientists are portraying it" (a meaningless qualifier that does nothing to change the bottom line -- Rubio doesn't want to do anything that would actually address the problem).

In 2010, Rubio won his Florida Senate Seat as a tea party darling. Four years later, he's considered firmly part of the "establishment" bloc of the party, with apparent aspirations to run for President in 2016. Rubio also illustrates well why that distinction -- between tea party and establishment Republicans -- is all but meaningless. Why? Because the Republican Party is now, as Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein put it, "an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." In 2008, as leader of the Florida House, Rubio helped fashion a version of cap and trade to reduce CO2 emissions. Six years later, he's a confirmed climate-denier. More generally, his voting record is a far right one by historical standards. It is well-established that the Republican Party as a whole has swung dramatically to the right over the past three decades. Rubio fits comfortably within that historical trend. Last year, Nate Silver pointed out that according to the most commonly accepted measures of ideological placement, Rubio would rank as more conservative than all Republican presidential nominees since 1960, with the exception of Barry Goldwater. In the 112th Congress, which adjourned at the beginning of 2013, Heritage Action rated him the third most conservative senator, after Jim DeMint and Mike Lee. And with the exception of the bi-partisan bill on immigration reform that he helped shepherd through the Senate last summer, Rubio has only positioned himself more aggressively to the right. He has done so in significant part because his apostasy on immigration reform -- to which the tea party is angrily opposed -- appeared to damage him badly among likely GOP primary voters.

Rubio doesn't froth at the mouth every time he opens it. This appears to be the primary basis for the widespread acceptance of the "notion" that he is now an establishment Republican. Likewise, Paul Ryan is widely accepted as an establishment Republican -- he was the party's vice-presidential standard-bearer, after all -- despite being known primarily for budget proposals that would dismantle nearly a century of social policy, with disastrous consequences for ordinary Americans.

In popular parlance, "establishment" is supposed to be a stand-in for reasonable or moderate and to reflect the lessons that the GOP is alleged to have learned from 2010, when the insurgent candidacies of a number of far-right challengers may have cost the GOP a Senate majority, and from 2012, when its failure to appeal beyond its base resulted in a second decisive win for Barack Obama. But this new nomenclature reflects little more than mainstream media acquiescence to a flimsy PR effort by Republicans. While their aspiring office holders promote a hard right policy agenda, the party has tried to beat back candidates who lack the thin veneer of respectability necessary to push across the finish line in November. In this regard, there is no better exemplar than Thom Tillis.

Tillis is the speaker of the GOP-controlled North Carolina House. Last week, he won the GOP nomination to run for the United States Senate, besting three candidates, including a tea-party challenger, Greg Brannon, a physician who was endorsed by Rand Paul and who called for abolishing the IRS and the Federal Reserve. Tillis, in the bizarro world of contemporary politics, ran as the "establishment candidate." Don't be thrown by that label. Tillis is a true ideological extremist. He is, it should go without saying, a climate denier. He also presided over what was nationally recognized last year as among the most brazen assaults on moderate centrist governance the country has witnessed in recent years. In fact, in recent debates, he proudly trumpeted his leadership of a "conservative revolution" in North Carolina.

And what was the shape of that revolution?

Under Tillis' leadership, emboldened Republican majorities in North Carolina passed what the voting expert Rick Hasen deemed the most restrictive anti-voting bill in the United States since the passage of the Voting Rights Act half a century ago. They appended a law to severely restrict women's access to abortion facilities to a motorcycle safety bill. They rejected Medicaid expansion, denying hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians access to affordable health care, costing the state thousands of jobs, undercutting North Carolina's fiscal position in the process and, of course, risking the lives of perhaps thousands of residents. They declared war on North Carolina teachers, resulting in a (predictable) mass exodus, which the GOP leadership is now scrambling to rectify. In 2012, with Tillis among its biggest supporters, North Carolina approved the most restrictive anti-marriage equality amendment in the country. And the GOP-dominated legislature passed tax "cuts" which, while greatly benefiting the wealthy, have resulted in a majority of North Carolina taxpayers paying more in taxes.

Tillis, to be crystal clear, was at the center of all of these efforts and more.

Oh and in 2011, Tillis told a group of supporters that it was crucial for his party to "divide and conquer people on assistance, getting those who can't help their circumstances to "look down at" those who "choose to get in a condition where they're dependent" on the government. As Steve Benen noted, calling on folks to pit some recipients of governments assistance against others is especially rich coming from a party that is constantly whining about how the Democrats engage in "class warfare" and trying to divide Americans.

In sum, this is what passes for "establishment" and "respectable" in today's Republican party. It's worth noting that not all ordinary Republicans share these extremists views. But viable officeholders clearly believe that the center of gravity in today's GOP requires adopting positions that are far outside of the American mainstream (the spectacle of practically every member of the House tripping over themselves to try to join the latest self-defeating investigation about Benghazi is a good example). Whether Thom Tillis or Marco Rubio calls himself establishment or tea party makes little substantive difference. They are either committed ideological extremists or cynical ones. The consequences for America of their election are, in either case, exactly the same.

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