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Same Old Party

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Pat Garofalo

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Last week, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the Republican Party is in deep trouble because it is getting smaller and being led by far-right polarizing figures. Specifically, he said that right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh "diminishes the party and intrudes or inserts into our public life a kind of nastiness that we would be better to do without." Limbaugh then responded that Powell ought to close the loop and leave the Republican Party instead of claiming to be interested in reforming it. Yesterday on CBS's Face the Nation, Vice President Cheney said that if he had to choose a model Republican, he would choose Limbaugh over Powell. The episode underscored an unexpected result of the 2008 election: Though a significant majority of Americans continue to reject the policy prescriptions and political rancor of old guard Republicans like Limbaugh and Cheney, the Republican establishment is now turning to those same conservative ring leaders to guide them out of the political wilderness.

DOUBLING DOWN ON THE PAST: In an interview last week with a conservative North Dakota talk radio host, Cheney said that "some of the older folks" in the Republican Party "who've been around a long time (like yours truly) need to move on, and make room for that young talent that's coming along." In the same week, congressional Republicans launched a "listening tour" in an attempt to rebrand their party, and in House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's (R-VA) words, "[R]econnect and make sure that our policy prescriptions are relevant to the challenges that people." Yesterday, however, there was little sign that the Republican Party of 2009 is any different than in years past, as three of the four major Sunday talk shows were dominated by old guard Republican voices. On Face the Nation, Cheney declared that his roll in authorizing the use of torture saved "hundreds of thousands of lives" while reiterating his view that Obama's national security policy is making Americans less safe. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) appeared on ABC's This Week, where he defended barring gays from openly serving in the military and claimed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is "working well." On Fox News Sunday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) claimed that President Obama wanted to put "alleged terrorists on welfare," railed against Obama's budget (which the American public supports), and reminisced about former President Reagan. The trifecta of rejected Republican leaders seemed to verify former Florida Republican governor Jeb Bush's observation last week that his party is consumed by "nostalgia" for the era of Reagan and relies almost completely on "good old days" rhetoric to push the Republican message.

'I'M THE DEFACTO LEADER OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY': This past Saturday marked Michael Steele's first 100 days as the chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), but the Chairman was nowhere to be seen on the Sunday shows. Last weekend, after Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's defection from the Republican Party, a Sunday morning show representative explained that Steele was not invited to discuss it because "there were questions as to how much power he still has or doesn't have within the struggling GOP." Steele's power, or lack thereof, is the result of a nearly constant stream of public "gaffes and stumbles" and an apparent inability behind the scenes to manage the large institution effectively. One anonymous Republican strategist familiar with the situation explained to The Progress Report's Amanda Terkel: "A lot of donors seem totally underwhelmed by Steele. Some donors are looking for another organization to donate to, and right now, for a lot of them, the [Republican Governors Association] looks like an ideal alternative." Over his first 100 days, Steele has swung wildly from pledging to moderate and grow the GOP to dismissing moderate members as traitors. Early on, he appeared to endorse women's right to choose abortion, and challenged Limbaugh's leadership. Steele had insisted on CNN that he -- and not Limbaugh -- was the "defacto leader" of the Republican party and admitted that he viewed Limbaugh's show as "ugly" and "incendiary." After an uproar from the conservative movement in response to those and similar comments, however Steele has tried to show himself to be an unyielding champion of conservative principles -- but not always in the most articulate way. On Friday, while guest hosting Bill Bennett's talk radio show, Steele dismissed Obama's desire to nominate a Supreme Court justice with "empathy" for "the daily realities of people's lives," calling Obama's criteria "crazy nonsense empathetic." Steele nonsensically added, "I'll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind!"

MODERATES NEED NOT APPLY: When Specter announced his decision to leave the Republican Party on April 28, he explained, "The Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right. I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy." Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) expressed similar concerns in an op-ed the next day, writing that moderate Republicans often "get the distinct feeling that you're no longer welcome in the tribe." Cheney seemed to confirm this sentiment yesterday in his rejection of the more moderate Powell, while Steele suggested earlier this month on NPR that if other moderate Republicans -- such as former Sens. Chuck Hagel (NE), Gordon Smith (OR), and John Warner (VA) -- were still in Congress, they would be "left of [the] Republican Party today." Steele explained himself, saying, "They are to the left on some very critical issues that are fundamental to our -- some of our core beliefs." Yesterday, on ABC's This Week, McCain expressed his view that the problem for Republicans was not that Americans had rejected their right-wing policy ideas, but that they had not communicated those policy ideas well enough in the recent past. He agreed with Cheney, who recently claimed it would be a "mistake" for his party to moderate. "I don't want to moderate either. I think our policies, the principles of our party, are as viable today as they have been in the past," but insisted that there's a place in his party for moderates. Without a hint of irony, however, McCain then repudiated his daughter's view that the Republican Party ought to be more accepting of gays and those who are pro-choice. McCain said that while the party should be "inclusive," they cannot betray their "fundamental principles."