GOP Senses That Winter Is Coming

The party's presidential hopefuls and Capitol Hill leaders know they have to get real if they hope to lead the country -- and the world.

WASHINGTON -- Winter is coming, as they say on "Game of Thrones," and the Republican Party seems to have become vaguely aware that if it doesn’t get serious fast, it will be lost: That is, Hillary Clinton will be the next president.

That is the main takeaway from Wednesday's events on Capitol Hill, where a budget deal passed the House, and on a debate stage at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where the top 10 Republican candidates squared off in a chaotic but inadvertently illuminating two-hour debate.

In Congress, GOP leaders have cut a deal with the Obama administration to put aside the largest budget and borrowing disputes until after the 2016 election -- a move designed to change the party’s image as a cohort of infantile obstructionists whose only idea of governance is a shutdown.

And at the debate hosted by CNBC, the candidates managed to engage in something approximating a real exchange of what to do about runaway spending on giant programs.

Overall, there should be some cautious hope in the U.S. and around the world that America can still lead by deploying a functioning two-party system that can get things done.

While Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky -- the main libertarian in the race -- vowed to use Senate rules to slow the budget deal, the debate was notable for the number of times that even he (and the other nine on the stage) passed up chances to take a whack at what the party's leaders on Capitol Hill had done.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the outsider's insider, may join in Paul's filibuster effort, and will continue to concentrate his fire on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) But Cruz's broader pitch is that, while he is a born renegade, he knows how to handle the levers of D.C. power.  

Indeed, rebellious tea party types in the Senate will rage against the machine, but will probably lose.

And even though names were called and the media was duly dissed, the candidates got across their real and substantive differences on programs like Social Security and Medicare -- a level of earnestness that acknowledged the fact that if they want to govern they have to, well, govern.

The dynamics of the debate were instructive. While celebrity front-runners Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump more or less held their own, the meatier exchanges and bigger scores involved elected leaders, led by the slick-as-glass Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and the four governors or former governors: John Kasich of Ohio, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Jeb Bush of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey.

By no means are the “outsiders” finished -- Carson and Trump between them dominate the current field -- but both seemed out of their element, if not their league, when the question was how to actually run a government.

This matters to America and to the world. The Founding Fathers claimed to distrust and despise political parties, but the particular genius of American leadership has been the “big tent” two-party systems and their ability to eventually unite the country when times are tough.

There is actually some hope that the U.S. won’t devolve into a European-style system with a polychromatic array of party factions.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could be tempted to run as an independent if he doesn’t defeat Clinton for the Democratic nomination, but it’s unlikely. The same is true of “outsider” anti-establishment types such as Trump, Cruz or even Paul.

Paul, after all, is inside the tent: He has to run for re-election in Kentucky if his presidential effort fails, as now seems likely.

It’s not the Party of Lincoln or of Ronald Reagan. But it is a party that seems to be realizing that it needs to get its act together.


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Moments From The CNBC Republican Debate