The battle for the heart and soul of the GOP
For a brief moment or two after the 2006 midterm elections, it had seemed that the Republican Party was perhaps going off its ideological moorings.
The talk was reaching the level of near-clamor regarding how the GOP was going to have to consider retreating from the right-wing conservative stance that had swept it into power in Congress in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America revolution and George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential victories back toward the middle of the road.
That is what the Democrats did, after all, to reverse the tide of Republican victories dating back a dozen years – riding moderates like former Reagan administration official Jim Webb and evangelical Christian and former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler to victories in House and Senate races across the country.
As long as Democrats control the center, the conventional wisdom was saying, then Republicans would run the risk of falling back into the permanent-minority-party status that defined their organization for 50 years before the mid-1990s Gingrich Revolution.
A new conventional wisdom seems to be emerging now, though – and the conservatives advancing it don’t appear to be interested in letting somebody else decide for them that their time has passed.
“I think liberalism lost big-time in this election – because basically no one ran to the left, and if they did, they didn’t win,” said Chris Saxman, a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates who is considered one of the Virginia GOP’s rising stars.
“Democrats realize that they had to go out and find moderate Democrats to run in these races to win – and that’s what they did. And the ones they beat – some of them were conservative, but most of them were the more moderate to liberal members of the Republican Party that the base didn’t support. And frankly, if the base isn’t going to support you, then you lose a lot of turnout factor there in those races,” said Saxman, a Staunton Republican who represents the Queen City and portions of Augusta, Highland and Rockingham counties in Richmond.
“I don’t think it was a bad year. A moderate Democrat will beat a moderate Republican. That’s basically what came out of that election,” Saxman told The Augusta Free Press.
One of Saxman’s colleagues in the House of Delegates in Virginia, Steve Landes, a Weyers Cave Republican who serves as the chair of the GOP caucus in the junior legislative chamber, welcomes the discussions over the direction that the party needs to take in the wake of the midterms.
But Landes also sounds a message that is being repeated by others nationwide – that Republicans still hold sway across a wide swath of the American political landscape.
“If you look at the Virginia map, for example, we still represent a large portion of the state,” Landes told the AFP, pointing to the results from Jim Webb’s Nov. 7 victory over incumbent Sen. George Allen, who lost by 9,000 votes of the 2.4 million total votes cast. “The problem areas we have are the urban-suburban areas – but I think you could make the argument that maybe it is those areas that are out of step with the rest of the state, and not the rest of the state that is out of step with Northern Virginia.
“There has to be a happy middle ground somewhere – and I do believe that for parties to be successful, they’ve got to find that happy middle ground. Not to get away from their basic philosophy, but to come up with solutions that can help solve the pressures that the people in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and Richmond have,” Landes said.
“But that said, George Allen won 80 to 90 percent of the localities – but it wasn’t Fairfax County or Prince William County,” Landes said. “The Democrats seem to think that this will be their solution – but I don’t think they can win consistently unless they appeal to rural voters. And very few counties went to Jim Webb this time around.”
It isn’t as if conservative Republicans are necessarily desperate in their efforts to cling to power within their own party. But they do seem to be feeling a “sense of urgency” to get the party focused on what put Republicans in power in Congress and the White House in the first place, said David McQuilkin, a political-science professor at Bridgewater College.
“What I think they’re doing when they say that, in part, is they’re saying that it was the conflict in Iraq that did them in – and their relationship with that is what probably hurt them,” McQuilkin said.
“I think you’re going to see them try to really push hard on the issues now of true conservatism – and what they see it representing,” McQuilkin said. “There’s a true sense of urgency there that they have really gone astray – and where they’ve gone astray is by not being faithful to their conservative values. That’s caused immorality, that’s caused the scandals, that’s caused the move away from limited government.
“The conservative social values that they think are the heart and soul of the program and that they think are going to attract the mainstream of the American public have been pushed aside, they feel. And they need to get back to basics,” McQuilkin told the AFP.
Moderates in the Republican Party, for their part, feel that this could be a fatal misread of the ’06 elections.
“The Republican Party is destined for minority status if we stay on the same path,” said Russ Potts, a Winchester Republican state senator who ran for governor in 2005 as an independent Republican.
“We used to be a party of ideas. But the only ideas that the people in that crowd are espousing is no, no, no,” Potts said. “Well, I’ve heard the no. You gave me the no. Now tell me what you’re going to do. If it’s no, tell us, then, what your alternative strategy is here.
“I don’t think there’s any question that this conservative, right-wing, extremist crowd in the Republican Party got their heads handed to them. People are looking for solutions, not these soundbite, hot-button issues like gay marriage that seem to be the only things they can offer up,” Potts told the AFP.
“It’s important that they acknowledge that one of the reasons that they lost was this social extremism,” agrees Jennifer Stockman, the chair of the Washington, D.C.,-based Republican Majority for Choice, a moderate-centrist GOP lobbying organization that has been airing television ads in markets on the East Coast pushing the idea that the ’06 midterms made it abundantly clear that the party needs to move back to the political center.
“We know from previous elections that the party doesn’t want to hear our message. But I do think they’re pragmatic enough to know we’re the common-sense position,” Stockman said. “They just haven’t figured out the magic formula – the big-tent formula. There’s room for all of us in the party.
“Our position is, of course you can have differing views on very emotional personal issues. Some people are going to be anti-choice, some people are going to understand that it is going to need to be an option for families. Some people are not going to be believe in embryonic stem-cell research, others are. But these should not be the prevailing issues that define our party,” Stockman said.
“The problem is that conservatives operate as if they have a mandate – but they bullied the Republican Party into believing that they have a mandate,” Stockman said.
“That’s a big problem. The Republican Party has created this monster that is wagging the party by its tail – and it’s the tail wagging the dog,” Stockman said.
“The social conservatives are saying that they lost because social conservatives didn’t come out to vote. But that’s not true,” Stockman said. “The same proportion of voters were social conservatives in ’06 as came out in ’04 – between 20 and 24 percent. But of course they’re going to say that.
“They’re trying to manipulate the party to go further to the right. I don’t think the party can go further to the right, frankly. But that’s what they’re trying to do,” Stockman told the AFP.
Emmett Hanger, a Mount Solon Republican state senator who was briefly a candidate for the party’s 2005 nomination to run for lieutenant governor in Virginia, points to the party’s increasing fiscal extremism as another potential problem that GOP leaders will have to deal with.
“It appears to me that some of the more outspoken members of the Republican Party right now are becoming libertarian anti-government, really, in their focus,” said Hanger, a staunch social and fiscal conservative who has come under fire within his own party for his work on a bipartisan tax-reform plan with former Virginia governor Mark Warner, a Democrat, and his efforts to reach across the aisle to find solutions to funding crises in transportation and education.
“Something that has really troubled me with our party is the lack of true fiscal conservatism,” said Hanger, who chafes at the label of moderate that has been attached to him by his conservative critics and political pundits in recent years.
“The extremists are so adamantly opposed to any taxes that they would not support any form of tax for any type of service. And that obviously will not work in advanced civilizations such as ours – where for the common good, you do provide for services, certain basic core services, for your community, and certain basic infrastructure. To a certain extent, I think they’re on a page that’s too narrow in its definition,” Hanger said.
“It seems to me that the national party, in particular, has been trying to have it both ways,” Hanger said. “We look over the past year, and our federal budget has been out of balance somewhere between a billion and two billion dollars a day – and over the last six years, we’ve amassed an additional deficit of $1.6 trillion. I don’t think you’re going to keep taxes low – but at the same time continue to spend money. Those hard decisions haven’t been made – and I don’t think that’s fiscally conservative.
“I think we’re going to have to revisit what it means to be a fiscal conservative,” Hanger told the AFP. “And I think that that means addressing both sides of the budget – in terms of the revenues and the expenditures. And if you determine that it’s in the best interests of the state and the country that you have to spend certain amounts of money, then you have to be prepared to raise that money.”
Jim DiPeso, the policy director of the Seattle, Wash.,-based Republicans for Environmental Protection, points to a third area where Republicans seem to have strayed from their core beliefs.
“True conservatism means limited government, and in those areas where the government does have a legitimate responsibility, which in our mind includes environmental protection, focus on cost-effective approaches that will actually solve the problems that we need to face in this country,” DiPeso said.
What is interesting here is that President Bush has a track record of having worked in Texas during his time as governor of the Lone Star State to strengthen environmental policies – most notably in the area of wind-energy development.
“Under Gov. George Bush, Texas adopted probably the best renewable-energy portfolio standard in the country that has enabled Texas to become the nation’s number-one state in wind-energy development. And that came about because then-Gov. Bush and the Texas legislature worked through a very well-crafted piece of legislation that really got the job done. In some ways, it’s been more successful than the writers of the legislation thought,” DiPeso said.
“I think there are areas where the president and the new Democratic majority can come to quick agreement,” DiPeso said. “I think clean alternative-energy development is one of those areas. Extending the production tax credit for wind energy is another example. A national renewable-energy standard perhaps modeled on the Texas legislation. More incentives for alternative fuels. Strengthening of the efficiency standards for energy-using equipment. I think there are areas where Congress and the administration could come to quick agreement – and that would set a good tone and a pattern for coming to agreement or attempting to come to agreement on other issues as well.
“I think that there are some opportunities here. If the administration wants to go out with a bang, I think it would be well-served to take a look at these opportunities,” DiPeso told the AFP.
Whether or not party leaders will decide to address these internal criticisms remains to be seen. For now, the focus seems to be on “having a sort of circular firing squad – everybody going after each other over who’s to blame,” Bob Borosage, the co-director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive political-action group, told the AFP.
Among those who got dinged up in the volleys of fire was Kate Obenshain Griffin, who stepped down from her post as chair of the Republican Party of Virginia following Allen’s Election Day defeat. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie appears to be in line for the job – but it is certain that there will be a good bit of hand-wringing over elevating Gillespie, who served on Allen’s campaign team, to the top spot.
“Kate Griffin bred dissension and divisiveness and mean-spiritedness – in-your-face, my-way-or-the-highway kind of politics. And worse yet, there was punishment for our members when they didn’t march in lockstep,” said Russ Potts, the Winchester state senator.
“The Republican Party has to be the big tent – and we have to have room in the Republican Party for John Warner, and we have to have room in the Republican Party for (conservative state senator) Ken Cuccinelli. Hey, I disagree with Ken Cuccinelli on everything – but I never demanded that he be ousted from the Republican Party because he voted that way. Which is unlike what his position is,” Potts said.
“I’d like to see an apostle of John Warner’s – somebody who believes that you govern from the middle – in that position,” Potts said. “I’d like to see a statewide chairman like a Haley Barbour – who believes in the big tent. Haley Barbour embraced Arlen Specter, and he embraced George Allen.
“That’s the strength of a party – the strength of a nation, the strength of an organization, the strength of a political party is the big tent. Being allowed to agree to disagree. Not governing in the fashion that the House of Delegates does – that punishes you and rips you off a committee assignment because you don’t vote a certain way,” Potts said.
“I would hope that it would be someone who can identify in broad and general terms what the party stands for – and then work to build a broader base, rather than the narrow base that it seems we’ve been working toward,” said Emmett Hanger, the Mount Solon state senator. “We’ve had instances now in our party statewide where if you can agree on a lot of things, but if you disagree on one thing, some of the party organizations want to kick you out of the party – because you’re not pure enough, you’re not really a Republican if you don’t believe exactly as I do.
“I would hope that we would have a chairperson that would be willing to be a party-builder rather than one who would be carrying an agenda for a particular segment of the party. Because clearly, if you want to go to extremes, you can’t win elections. I tend to be to the right in the Republican Party, particularly on social issues, but if you don’t reach out and maintain a broad base, it’s difficult to win elections across the state and across the nation,” Hanger said.
Two other casualties of the firing squads could be the two men currently seen as the top contenders for the 2008 Republican Party presidential nomination – Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Both are viewed as being more moderate and centrist than conservative – and thus both could have serious problems facing ’08 primary voters, who will be disproportionately conservative in their political makeup.
“I think it is nearly impossible for Rudolph Giuliani to win the Republican Party nomination – simply because I don’t think he can move far enough on issues to satisfy social conservatives, who really turn out in large numbers during Republican Party primaries,” said Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University.
“Giuliani has a long history of being pro-choice, pro-gay rights – all those litmus-test-type issues that social conservatives simply aren’t going to go for. He may change the way he talks about himself, but that isn’t going to hide the fact that he has a record of positions on these issues that a lot of social conservatives simply aren’t going to be able to accept,” Kidd told the AFP.
“Giuliani has a hell of a hard time getting traction in that party – in spite of the fact that he was the 9/11 hero,” Borosage said. “This is a guy who’s not only pro-choice and pro-gay rights, but he’s a guy who’s been pictured going to parties to dresses. I can’t imagine he gets past South Carolina.
“I suspect that the party elite will see John McCain as the oasis in the desert, the only hope that they have of trying to stanch the losses. But it will be interesting to see if McCain can gain the support of the Christian right that controls the primaries,” Borosage said. “McCain has kissed the ring of Falwell, folded on torture – he’s basically turning himself inside out.
“It’s rather shameless – the way he’s trying to pander to that support. Maybe that works – because I think he’s their best hope for sustaining the White House. And he’ll have a lot of corporate money behind him. But he’s certainly not the darling of the evangelical right,” Borosage said.
And that’s where it appears the power is in the Republican Party – at least for the time being.
“The fact of the matter is, Republican moderates lost seats in the most recent election. So they had very little influence in policy before the election – and they have even less after it. I think the social conservatives are probably stronger in the party now as a result of the elections than they were before,” Borosage said.
“The real division in the party isn’t between moderates and conservatives – it’s between the traditional small-government, low-tax Reagan conservatives and the more modern, newer, in terms of power, social conservatives,” Kidd said. “I think the Republican Party’s dilemma is this – social conservatives don’t mind government, and traditional conservatives want to reduce the size and reach of government as much as possible.
“I think that’s the fissure, the fault line within the Republican Party – and it will be interesting to see who is going to win that debate,” Kidd said.