What the Rudy, Homeland Security flaps say about GOP

Political hot potato... homeland security
Political hot potato... homeland security   

There are a number of major story lines floating around the Republican Party right now. But they are all essentially about the same thing. Is the GOP a governing majority party? Or is it an ideological movement based entirely on opposing President Barack Obama in every conceivable way?

These questions surround the current debate in Washington over funding the Department of Homeland Security and they are central to the recent flare-ups over comments made about the president by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Rudy Guiliani
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Rudy Guiliani

First, the Homeland Security situation. Republicans once again find themselves torn between hard-liners in the House who are demanding that any bill to fund the department curtail Obama's unilateral actions on immigration reform. Senate Republicans do not have the filibuster-proof, 60 seat majority they would need to pass the House bill and send it to the president, who would then veto it anyway.

Many Senate Republicans would like to simply fund the department and move on while warning that if they don't, the public will blame them for a shutdown, something polling data confirms.

"I've never seen more terrorist organizations," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "And the worst thing to do is having the Republican Party add gasoline to the fire by defunding the Department of Homeland Security."

Read More Fear & loathing of Rand Paul's 'bash the Fed' stance

Republicans in favor of fully funding DHS also note that a federal judge in Texas already put a stop to Obama's immigration actions, at least for now, something that should give the GOP cover to move on from the current fight.

None of that is enough to satisfy House conservatives—and some GOP hard-liners in the Senate—who would rather see DHS shutdown than fail to confront Obama over immigration. It is the exact same dynamic we have seen time and again since the GOP first took the House in 2010 leading to government shutdowns and near misses on the debt limit and the 2012 "fiscal cliff" fight.

Chances are fairly good that the GOP will muddle through to some solution that temporarily funds DHS. But that just means the fight will pop up again in a couple of months time. Even more potentially damaging scenarios await when the debt ceiling and government funding for the 2016 fiscal year pop up in the fall.

Meanwhile, a very similar dynamic is at play in the Giuliani and Walker stories. The New York City mayor thrilled the right with his comments last week that Obama does not "love America." Many in the conservative movement very much believe this to be true.

Read MoreWhat Scott Walker actually said: Kudlow

And Walker also emerged as a conservative hero when he told The Washington Post he did not know whether or not Obama was a Christian. Questioning Obama's faith—is he a secret Muslim?—is another surefire dog whistle for the conservative fringes of the Republican Party. Walker's comment—even though he tried to frame it as a critique of media "gotcha" questions—is not likely to hurt him in the Iowa caucuses.

But it could hurt him if he ultimately gets the Republican nomination. Because the presidential electorate already tilts Democratic. Emerging with the nomination as someone who questions the president's faith is not likely to help Walker win key swing states.

Giuliani basically acknowledged he'd overstepped in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday in which he said he "didn't intend to question President Obama's motives or the content of his heart." He went on to lay out a more nuanced critique of Obama's habit of criticizing America and questioning its status as the one truly "exceptional" nation on earth while refusing to blame "Islamic extremism" for terror attacks and the rise of ISIS.

The former New York mayor is on much stronger ground here when criticizing specific Obama comments and policies rather than throwing red meat to the base about the president not loving America.

Read More Obama patriotism flap 'insane': Ex-Romney advisor

This approach is something the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls, if they plan to ride on past Iowa and perhaps into the White House, should probably figure out. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took a stab at it when his spokeswoman released a statement after Giuliani's comments: "Governor Bush doesn't question President Obama's motives. He does question President Obama's disastrous policies."

That seems more like a winning general election message rather than one aimed at inflaming the base and winning Iowa only to flame out down the road.

—By Ben White. White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.