March 14th, 2014
09:58 AM ET

Inside Politics: GOP Debate Over Policy and Personalities

It's getting personal on all fronts as Republicans debate the wisdom of their leaders - present and future.

Two leading GOP 2016 contenders, the freshmen Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, are in a public spat over foreign policy that quickly became framed around what seems to be the perennial GOP question: Who is the heir to Ronald Reagan?

And while that plays out, two of the right's outspoken and at times outlandish voices are in a war of words over whether conservatives should see Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell as a hero or a heretic.

These debates are entertaining and interesting, not to mention telling snapshots of the struggle within the Republican Party and conservative movement to find a consensus message - and acceptable messengers.

Some of it should look familiar to Democrats who remember the years between Mondale '84 and Clinton '92: a party in exile from the White House has no singular leader, and so has more open, and vocal, competition over policy and personalities.

Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and his merry band of Democratic Leadership Council centrists argued the Democratic Party was too liberal, too tied to big labor and too afraid to talk about things like work requirements in welfare programs.

No, perhaps they didn't have the notoriety of today's tea party. But those were not exactly days of Democratic unity. "Democrats for the Leisure Class," was the label Jesse Jackson put on Clinton and the DLC.

It was great political theater, and like the Republican tug-of-war today an instructive look at the tensions in a party that at the time was strong at the congressional level but not credible at the presidential level.

My, how the tide has turned. Republicans now control the House and have a good chance to take control of the Senate in this year's midterm elections.

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