Nature abhors vacuums. Politics exploits them.
The narrative about the aversion (temporarily) of the fiscal cliff is that the sausage-making in Congress had President Barack Obama taking advantage of Republican divisions. A sidebar was that Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell worked around the leadership vacuum of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid by dealing directly with Vice President Joe Biden.
The irony is that Reid remains in the Senate because of GOP infighting — specifically the split between tea party Republicans and GOP members who are more mainstream. Reid was exceptionally vulnerable as he sought re-election in 2010, but Nevada Republicans nominated a woman to oppose him who was too far out of the mainstream.
Nevertheless, the second week of January finds tea party leaders threatening to oppose any GOP lawmakers who voted for the fiscal cliff deal. This would include two of the three incumbent Oklahoma representatives who took part in the vote.
Such internecine warfare is a hallmark of political parties when they control the game: A majority party's leader can find that his biggest headache comes from within his own party rather than from the opposition. This is precisely what's happened in Oklahoma as Republicans not only cemented their control of state government but set it in granite, seemingly never to be dislodged.
Ask former House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, about governing from a position of strength. His biggest battles were with fellow Republicans. Minority Democrats exploited the divisions by siding with dissident Republicans on some issues.
Keep in mind, though, that in the Oklahoma example Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature and every statewide elective office. In Washington, the GOP controls only a third of the government — the House — and doesn't have a super-majority even there.
This should be a scenario that calls for unity, but that would require something the Republicans lack: The party has no national leader with a vision that others can rally around. Embattled John Boehner won another term as House speaker, but this doesn't make him that national leader. Ten members outright opposed his re-election, a number that includes one of Oklahoma's two freshmen representatives.
Herding cats is an apt description for a political leader tasked with reining in rogue elements, but the task Boehner faces seems more like herding strays who have no interest in rejoining the herd and who in fact would like to start their own herd.
Principled opposition to the fiscal cliff agreement is no vice. Conservatives such as U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, believe they must take a stand against Obama's arrogant governance and out-of-control spending. But politics is supposed to temper principle with pragmatism, forging policies that not everybody will like (and indeed that most everybody will find some fault with).
The fiscal cliff was narrowly averted in an ugly, last-minute deal. The key issues will return. If House Republicans can't coalesce behind Boehner, if a leadership vacuum is evident, then Obama and the Democrats will exploit their divisions over and over. If “mainstream” Republicans are knocked off in primaries (only to see the challenger lose in general elections), their numbers and influence will shrink.
The difficulty of reaching a deal and the fact that it went down to the wire aren't necessarily bad things. Despite his re-election, Obama has no right to cakewalk his way through a second term. If he wants a fight over fiscal responsibility, the Republicans should respond in kind.
But they need to respond from a position of relative unity rather than division. For want of a vision, a House could be lost. And a president who wants to leave a dirty fiscal carpet for future generations to clean naturally abhors a vacuum.
McReynolds is The Oklahoman's opinion editor.