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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Republican civil war, like all civil wars, is even messier than it looks. It’s a battle between two different conservative establishments complicated by philosophical struggles across many other fronts. Its resolution will determine whether we are a governable country.

Because the GOP fight is so important, it’s a mistake to dismiss the passage of a real, honest-to-goodness budget through both houses of Congress as a minor event. The deal negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan may be small, but it represents a major recalibration of forces inside the Republican Party.

From the time the Republicans took over the House in 2010, it became a matter of doctrine that conservatives should never reach compromises with Democrats — and especially with President Obama. Compromise came to be seen as a violation of conservative ideals.

Poll after poll has shown that attitudes toward the quest for common ground have become one of the new dividing lines between the parties. Typical was a Pew Research Center survey taken in January, as the new Congress opened. Given a choice pitting elected officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with” against those who “stick with their principles,” 59 percent of Democrats but only 36 percent of Republicans preferred compromise-seekers.

In arriving at a relatively down-the-middle deal with Murray and the Democrats to avoid a government shutdown and further gridlock, Ryan was thus defying what has been the prevailing view among his party’s rank and file. In doing so, the ambitious Wisconsin Republican offered a hint as to where he sees his party moving over the long run.

The Tea Party certainly still wields power in GOP primaries, one reason why only one of the seven Republican Senators facing Tea Party challengers, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, supported allowing a vote on the deal. But Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner calculated, correctly, that the wreckage from October’s shutdown strategy allowed them to breach the Tea Party’s barrier against deal-making.

Ryan partially hedged his bets. He declined on Meet the Press last Sunday to join Boehner’s robust assault on outside conservative groups and insisted that the GOP would still make demands when an extension of the debt ceiling comes up for a vote early next year.

Nonetheless, when Ryan declared that he had to make a deal because “elections have consequences,” he was making a fundamental concession to the view Obama has been advancing: that with the Democrats still holding the White House and the Senate, compromise is unavoidable if governing is to happen.