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Friday, December 2, 2016

WASHINGTON — The language commonly used to describe the battle going on inside the Republican Party is wrong and misleading. The fights this spring are not between “the grassroots” and “the establishment,” but between two establishment factions spending vast sums to gain the upper hand.

Their confrontation has little to do with the long-term philosophical direction of the GOP. Very rich ideological donors, along with Tea Party groups, have been moving the party steadily rightward. Political correctness of an extremely conservative kind now rules.

This explains the indigestion some Republican politicians are experiencing as they are forced to eat old words acknowledging a human role in climate change. It’s why party leaders keep repeating the word “Benghazi” as a quasi-religious incantation, why deal making with President Obama is verboten, and why they stick with their “repeal Obamacare” fixation.

The accounts of Tuesday’s Republican primary in Nebraska for an open U.S. Senate seat are revealing. Ben Sasse, a university president who held a variety of jobs in George W. Bush’s administration, won it handily. His success was broadly taken as a triumph for the Tea Party, which just a week ago was said to have suffered a defeat in North Carolina. There, Thom Tillis, the Speaker of the state House of Representatives and the so-called establishment candidate, faced opponents perceived to be to his right. Yet Tillis will be one of the most right-wing candidates on any ballot this fall.

The more instructive way to look at the Nebraska result was suggested by a report on the outcome in The Wall Street Journal by Reid Epstein. Sometimes, news stories are like good poems that convey meaning through artful — if not always intentional — juxtaposition.

Epstein noted that Sasse was “backed by more than $2.4 million in ad spending, either praising him or attacking his opponents, from organizations such as the small-government Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which targets Republicans it deems insufficiently conservative.”

Yet in the very next paragraph, Epstein quoted a Facebook post from Sen. Ted Cruz, the Tea Party hero who supported Sasse. The Texas Republican declared that “Ben Sasse’s decisive victory is a clear indication that the grassroots are rising up to make D.C. listen.”