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Friction within the GOP causes some Republicans to question what their philosophy is


The Republican Party has had a lot of public friction lately. There's now disagreement over the debt ceiling and a contested race for RNC chair. As NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, it's all raising questions over what the party's philosophy is.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, Americans, or the subset who get excited about these things, were glued to C-SPAN as the House voted 15 times for a speaker. Invoking the influence of former President Trump, Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert spoke out against eventual winner Kevin McCarthy.


LAUREN BOEBERT: The president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, sir, you do not have the votes, and it's time to withdraw.


BOEBERT: With that, I yield. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Among her faction's demands were that the House not raise the debt ceiling without deep spending cuts. Soon after, Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief of the website The Bulwark, wrote a piece entitled "There's Nothing Conservative About Reneging On Our Debt."

CHARLIE SYKES: Basically saying, yes, let's push the country toward debt default - in what world is refusal to pay your credit cards considered a conservative act?

KURTZLEBEN: The latest GOP infighting has thus revived a yearslong conversation about what it even means to be conservative. That conversation arguably got louder when Donald Trump ran for president in 2015. NPR's Scott Simon spoke to right-wing commentator Glenn Beck at the time.


SCOTT SIMON: He's not a conservative, according to you?

GLENN BECK: I don't think he is. I haven't heard him talk about the Constitution or small government.

KURTZLEBEN: But Beck and the rest of the party soon came around. And a recent study shows that Trump, in fact, changed how people define conservatism. Researchers asked party activists to rate how conservative different lawmakers are. Here's Daniel Hopkins, professor of political science at UPenn and one of the study's authors.

DANIEL HOPKINS: Donald Trump had, even for these political activists, largely redefined what it was to be conservative around support for Trump and his style of politics.

KURTZLEBEN: Even those with conservative voting records were seen as more moderate than their colleagues if they were also Trump critics. Georgetown's Hans Noel, a study co-author, adds that Trump took focus away from traditionally conservative principles.

HANS NOEL: The sort of America-first, nativist, ethnocentric, even racist kind of appeals, where he's like, let's get out of NAFTA - some of those are rife - completely fly in the face of a free-market economy, free-trade Republican coalition.

KURTZLEBEN: So is the post-Trump GOP conservative? When political scientists have tried to objectively measure the party's conservatism, they have shown the entire GOP, including the McCarthys and the Boeberts, has grown more extreme in recent years. For her part, Ashley Hayek, executive director of the pro-Trump group America First Works, believes both that Trump's ideology is conservative and that he changed conservatism.

ASHLEY HAYEK: It's really - it was exposing the gap between the consultant and the people, and that permanently altered people's expectations overall. So I think conservativism is really putting power back to the American people.

KURTZLEBEN: Hayek adds that she sees this whole debate as an inside-the-Beltway conversation. That may be true, but it still raises a big question. If the party is Trump-centric rather than traditionally conservative, what happens as Trump's influence wanes? Michael Steele, former RNC chair, worries the party has no ideology right now. It didn't adopt a new platform in 2020, and Trump opponents like Liz Cheney are now out of power.

MICHAEL STEELE: We don't even have a platform. How do we define ourselves? We can't even tell you what we believe. You know, everybody talking about, Liz Cheney is a - yeah, Liz is a conservative on a lot of things. But Liz got herself kicked out of the party.

KURTZLEBEN: As 2024 approaches, Sykes thinks that what people think of as conservatism may be more about style than substance.

SYKES: Who can anger the left, who promises to fight and, you know, inflict damage on the left more aggressively.

KURTZLEBEN: From that point of view, what it now means to be conservative might be described as simply opposing liberals.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.