The "Intolerance" Party? GOP Strategists Worry Ideologues Are Bad For The Party's Future
A major rift has emerged within the Republican Party. On one side: Ideologues who are inciting the base with wild rhetoric and banking on a "great American awakening" that will sweep conservatives back into power. On the other: Strategists, who see the party's growing intolerance as a prescription for minority status.
So far, the ideologues are winning.
"Nobody helps the cause when they use name-calling instead of substantial criticism," says strategist Charlie Black, a senior adviser to almost every Republican presidential campaign since Ronald Reagan first ran.
But name-calling and demagoguery are the hallmarks of the movement conservatives and media celebrities like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who are increasingly being viewed as dominant forces in the modern GOP.
Palin's allegation that Obamacare would result in creation of government "death panels" has been widely criticized within her own party. Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who is no fan of the Democratic health care plan, noted: "Wildly inappropriate comments hurt the argument that the comments are supposed to support."
As early as last October, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks called Palin "a fatal cancer on the Republican Party," and George F. Will, a voice of the Republican establishment, dismissed the former Alaska governor as "an inveterate simplifier."
On July 28, Glenn Beck asserted on Fox News that Obama has "a deep hatred for the white people or the white culture...This guy, I believe, is a racist." And Rush Limbaugh -- not one to moderate his rhetoric - spent part of his August 6 broadcast discussing "the similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi party in Germany."
Alex Castellanos, strategist and media consultant to George W. Bush's presidential campaigns and to Mitt Romney, said, "We have a case to make and sometimes I think we draw more attention to the battle than to the message."
Despite this intra-party struggle, there is one area of common ground: Both the strategic and ideological factions are convinced that the outspoken public opposition to the Obama health care plan voiced at House and Senate town halls during the August recess has been highly advantageous to the GOP. Conservative radio and television hosts have fanned the flames of protest but professional Republican operatives -- some of whom initially voiced concerns that the expressions of intense anger might backfire - are now on board.
The town hall forums on health care "have been a huge benefit," said Castellanos. "This has gone far beyond the base of Republican activists." Charlie Black, in turn, argued that "people who don't normally get involved are looking at the news stories and getting involved" in the health care debate. Ayres warned "incivility almost never helps," but added, "energy and passion go a long way toward furthering an argument. The town halls really raised serious doubts about the health care plan, and intensity matters in politics."
"How about we actually look at ourselves as an ordinary, non-political business, selling a commercial product?" asks Republican consultant Bill Greener, founder of Greener & Hook. Citing the strength of Democrats among growing minority groups -- and the continuing Republican dependence on white support when the share of the electorate that is white is declining -- Greener poses the question, "Who would ever start down a path that essentially said that we will be strong in all the declining markets while we let our only significant competition be strong among the emerging and growing markets? Unless North Dakota suddenly gets 54 electoral votes, would someone please show me another way for Republicans to realistically conclude we can compete at the national level?"
On the "movement" side, social and fiscal conservatives are convinced that Democratic successes in 2006 and 2008 were aberrant -- caused by Republican wavering on core principals and the party's deviation from a hard line. In their view, the only change that is needed is the restoration of backbone. Democrats, they believe, will run aground on the shoals of reckless spending and failed "social engineering" -- giving the GOP renewed legitimacy.
This struggle has played out in the past in primary challenges to moderate Republicans from candidates aligned with the conservative Club for Growth. The current Republican conflict will be on center stage in the 2010 Texas Republican gubernatorial primary. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a centrist Republican, has announced that she will take on incumbent governor Rick Perry, a movement conservative.
"I do not want a governor who is going to narrow our base, make it dwindle," Hutchison told Texas voters. "I will work to build the Republican Party, not make it narrower." Perry, who has strong support from the far right of the party, countered: "it's a fight between a real, proven conservative and one who is not so conservative."
The power of movement conservatives has created major political problems in the home districts of Republican moderates. In 2005, then-Rep. Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican, complained bitterly that the "Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy."
Although the strategic wing of the party is currently challenging the hard right, those challenges still remain well within the bounds of Republican orthodoxy.
Ayres, for example, argues that the party "has to be consistent on its position on social issues." Abandonment of the party's stands against gay marriage and against abortion would result in the loss of GOP's "core base of supporters," Ayres said. But the advocacy of conservative stands has to be done "without seeming to be condemning on social issues."
In the case of immigration -- an issue likely to be taken up by Congress next year -- Ayres, like many of his colleagues, says the party should consider easing off the hard-line anti-immigration stand adopted by many elected Republicans, especially in the House, particularly "avoid[ing] much of the tone of the [2005 and 2006] immigration debates." Ayres wouldn't name names, but was likely referring to such congressmen as Steve King (R-Iowa), who has described immigration as a "slow-motion holocaust" that "threatens an eventual destruction of the middle class".
In the long term, Castellanos makes the case that the GOP has to go past attacking Obama. "As long as the Republican Party believes its principles are only good for saying 'no', it will remain a party unable to lead a great country, a party only able, on occasion, to rescue America from liberal Democrat overreaching and excess," he said.
One of the most outspoken GOP strategists is Tom Doherty, a partner with John McCain's campaign manager Steve Schmidt in the firm Mercury Public Affairs. Doherty notes that some in the party are convinced that appealing to blacks, Hispanics and gays "somehow means you are giving up our party principles."
Doherty contends that one of the biggest liabilities of the GOP is an image of intolerance. Leaders "need to set up a process where all Americans are equal in the Republican Party, whether gay, straight, transgender or bisexual. That is our biggest problem: we are viewed as a party dominated by the far right." Doherty and a number of other strategists were particularly critical of the harsh, anti-immigrant language used by Republicans on the House and Senate floor during debates in 2006. "Hispanics are going to be a majority in 30 years, you better make sure your party welcomes them."
In sharp contrast to the strategists, "ideological" Republicans pointedly avoid any discussion of accommodation which threatens doctrinal adherence and prefer to rely on the hope that Democrats will spontaneously implode.
Take John Feehrey, a top aide to former House majority leader Tom DeLay and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Feehrey believes that the Republican Party should adopt a two-pronged strategy he summarizes in 25 words: "First, watch the Democrats disintegrate over health care. Second, come up with a simplified agenda focused on government reform, fiscal responsibility, accountability, and trust-busting."
Conservative author and public relations guru Craig Shirley offers a more elaborate variation: "This period of 2009 reminds me greatly of 1977-78. The GOP was feckless, moribund and still attempting to shed Nixonism, as it now is attempting to shed itself of Bushism. A vacuum developed then as now; the conservative movement led to fill it just as it is now. Then, the conservatives led on opposition to the Panama Canal Treaties, SALT II, ERA, high taxes, the Departments of Energy and Education, etc. Jimmy Carter tried to do too much, as Obama now is."
Shirley contends that health care reform today is now playing a part similar to the role of Carter's energy initiative in the late 1970s. "Carter tried a sweeping change in energy policy that many believed would lead to higher taxes and gasoline rationing, just as many believe Obama is now doing on health care. Both scared the bejesus out of a whole lot of Americans." Shirley has a prescription shorter than Feehrey's -- just 17 words: "First oppose, then propose. The conservatives are opposing effectively. Now they need to propose, just as effectively."
Early on in the Obama administration, leaders of the ideological wing of the GOP voiced confidence that the electorate would soon return to the conservative fold. "While some are prepared to write the obituary on capitalism and our movement, I believe we are on the brink of a great American awakening," Mike Pence, chair of the Republican Conference, told the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on February 26. "I can feel it, I can hear it."
Two days later, Limbaugh laid the gauntlet down in front of those calling for accommodation. In a speech that went on for over 10,000 words, Limbaugh warned:
We've got factions now within our own movement seeking power to dominate it, and worst of all to redefine it. Well, the Constitution doesn't need to be redefined. Conservative intellectuals: the Declaration of Independence does not need to be redefined and neither does conservatism. Conservatism is what it is and it is forever. It's not something you can bend and shape and flake and form... .A couple of prominent conservative but Beltway establishment media types began to write on the concept that the era of Reagan is over. And that we needed to adapt our appeal, because, after all, what's important in politics is winning elections. And so we have to understand that the American people, they want Big Government. We just have to find a way to tell them we're no longer opposed to that. We will come up with our own version of it that is wiser and smarter, but we've got to go get the Wal-Mart voter, and we've got to get the Hispanic voter, and we've got to get the recalcitrant independent women. And I'm listening to this and I am just apoplectic: The era of Reagan is over?
For elected Republicans, the split between the ideologues and the tacticians/strategists poses a major dilemma. In private conversation, many side with the strategists, but are unwilling to publicly offend the core of their party -- the primary voters, the donors, the talkers, and the workhorses -- by publicly arguing that, health care aside, the growth of the Hispanic electorate, the strong tilt of young voters toward the Democratic Party, and the rise of a socially liberal, professional "new" class require change in both substantive policy and rhetoric.
The dangers facing elected Republicans who share the views of the strategists are reflected in the firestorm that hit Georgia Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey when he had the temerity to confront Limbaugh: "It's easy if you're Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don't have to try to do what's best for your people and your party. You know you're just on these talk shows and you're living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of thing," Gingrey said.
The next day, Gingrey was begging for forgiveness: "Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement's conscience. Everyday, millions and millions of Americans--myself included--turn on their radios and televisions to listen to what they have to say, and we are inspired by their words and by their determination"
The same thing happened to Republican Party chair Michael Steele. On February 28, Steele described Limbaugh's commentary as "incendiary" and "ugly." On March 2, he backtracked : "My intent was not to go after Rush -- I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh... There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership."
The degree to which fear of the hard right has restricted the scope of introspective discussion within the GOP is reflected in the virtual collapse of one of the few serious attempts to revitalize the party.
On April 30, Republican House Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), top House and Senate leaders, and potential presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal formed the National Council for a New America (NCNA) designed to be "the foundation of a concerted, policy-based forum to listen to, partner with, and empower the American people with ideas and solutions that speak directly to the needs of our great nation."
The organization immediately came under sharp attack from the conservative wing of the party because it made no mention of immigration, same-sex marriage, or abortion. Limbaugh described a proposed NCNA listening tour as a hoax: "Maybe we've gotten to the point where you have to scam the American people in order to get their votes." Tony Perkins head of the Family Research council declared: "Too many Republican leaders are running scared on the claims of the left and the media that social conservatism is a dead-end for the GOP."
Facing such hostility, NCNA has done virtually nothing during the past four months to develop either a new Republican agenda or a new Republican strategy. The web site's link to "Policy Forums" lists no relevant events and only allows visitors to "nominate" their hometowns as future forum sites.
The NCNA is so top-heavy with candidates and high-ranking officials that it cannot afford to offend anyone. Its policy nostrums could be repeated at any PTA meeting -- for example, the NCNA's dynamic statement on the economy:
As the country battles through the worst economic crisis in a generation, we must remain focused on the foundations and institutions that have made us the most prosperous people in the world and the ideas that create jobs and grow our economy. At the same time, we must learn from the mistakes that led to the current crisis and to prevent similar situations from ever occurring again.
The struggle to set the direction of the Republican Party is unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future, as ideologues and strategists remain locked in an enervating embrace. If the experience of the Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s offers a precedent, the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party will continue through the 2012 election and at least to 2016.
If there is a parallel between the Democratic defeat of 1972 and the Republican defeat of 2006-8, Republicans can look forward to two full decades in the wilderness -- unless the extraordinary gains in both the quality of political information and the speed of its dissemination significantly accelerate the process.