Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Party Fractured, GOP Conservatives Regroup

It was easy, from looking at the tally sheet for the House’s economic stimulus package vote on Jan. 28, to get the impression the Republican Party forms a unified conservative front in the new Congress. After all, 177 of the chamber’s 178 Republican members voted against the sprawling $819 billion measure — and the other one, Florida’s Ginny Brown-Waite , was committed to joining them until she was called away by a family emergency.

Which is why, even though the Democratic majority pushed the bill through with relative ease, some conservative activists hailed the outcome as a moral victory. “There is general agreement that our folks are finally standing up,” said Brett Littlefield, a spokesman for the American Conservative Union.

On the last weekend of this month, the group will hold its annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a gathering that Littlefield hopes will capitalize on the fleeting sense of empowerment captured in the stimulus vote. “Conservatives are looking for excitement and a reason to rally,” he said.

But many of the right’s grass-roots activists say the current political landscape offers little for them to get excited about. The political party they call home, of course, is coming off back-to-back devastating electoral losses, of Congress in 2006 and of the White House last fall. Just as grave, the GOP has no leader who’s clearly capable of restoring the magical Reagan alliance of fiscal and social conservatives that fueled the party’s strength for the better part of three decades — a critical task, activists say, when liberal views on social and economic policy are gaining popular appeal and traction in Congress.

Signs of movement disarray were on abundant display in the last campaign, from the top of the ticket on down. Republican presidential nominee John McCain was never a favorite of the social conservatives; indeed, he seized the nomination mainly because neither they nor the business conservatives were willing to give up on their own respective standard-bearers, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

At the same time, the conservative movement has seen several of its leading lights — Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Paul Weyrich and William F. Buckley Jr. among them — die in recent years, leaving no clear successors. One prominent evangelical who might have stepped into the breach had been Rick Warren, pastor of Orange County’s Saddleback Church. Warren instead helped confer evangelical legitimacy on the new administration by delivering the invocation at Barack Obama ’s inauguration.

Fiscal conservatives are in transition, too. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the American Enterprise Institute, where Christopher DeMuth retired in December after 22 years as the group’s president. In tribute, the conservative National Review noted that “a good case can be made that DeMuth is AEI” and that “without him, the think tank might not even exist anymore.”

Other movement leaders, such as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who now chairs the grass-roots small-government group FreedomWorks, are dismayed over the $700 billion financial industry bailout, pushed last year by President George W. Bush and supported in the end by almost half the Republicans in the House and two out of three from the GOP in the Senate. “It’s a dangerous time for fiscal conservatism,” he said.

Indeed, many conservatives say they have little hope that congressional Republican leaders will carry their standard, said Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail guru who helped stir the Reagan revolution in 1980. “Who in the world is ever going to follow Mitch McConnell ? Who is going to follow John Boehner?” Viguerie asked in reference to the party’s Senate and House floor leaders. “They look weak. They talk weak, and they have no plan or vision.”

This gap was especially apparent when Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska — a popular presidential choice for 2012 among movement conservatives thanks to her red-meat conservative profile as McCain’s running mate — turned down an invitation to speak at the House GOP’s annual retreat in Hot Springs, Va., when she came to Washington in late January to attend the high-profile Alfalfa Club dinner.

Reckoning With the Bush Legacy

It’s true that social and fiscal conservatives are unified in their view of Bush’s presidency, but that appraisal has done little to lighten the mood.

Many fiscal conservatives, citing the financial industry bailout as well as earlier capitulations on big spending initiatives such as the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit, say Bush’s tenure forced them to re-evaluate their affiliation with the GOP. “The libertarian voter was anti-Bush in every sense of the word,” says Fred L. Smith Jr., president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Social conservatives such as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, say Bush was hardly better on their issues. Apart from his down-the-line opposition to abortion rights, Perkins says, Bush was “not a consistent conservative.”

Most movement leaders are arguing for a return to what they see as the tried-and-true conservative game plan of limited government and traditional values. Most of all, they want congressional Republicans to stand up to the new president. That’s why Perkins is among the movement leaders taking heart in the House stimulus vote. “It was the first time in the six years I’ve been in Washington that the Republicans have stood with the conservatives,” he said.

And in the Senate last week, it was Republicans who banded together with centrist Democrats and forced a significant reduction in the size and scope of that chamber’s version of the economic recovery legislation.

By contrast, Perkins last month said the performance of GOP senators was “almost nauseating” in allowing “Obama’s most objectionable appointments” — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Education Secretary Arne Duncan among them, in his view — to cruise to confirmation “without so much as a peep from ranking GOP leaders.”

But even as Perkins discerns a resurgent conservative mood in the congressional GOP, his own evangelical movement is speaking in a far less unified conservative voice. If Warren’s inaugural appearance bespeaks a new mood of political reconciliation among evangelical leaders, the forced resignation of the National Association of Evangelicals’ lead lobbyist, Richard Cizik, late last year showed that social conservatives are still prepared to punish those who waver on key issues. Cizik, who already had earned much conservative ire for his efforts to galvanize Protestant denominations behind initiatives to mitigate global warming, told a radio interviewer that he supported civil unions for same-sex couples.

In Cizik’s view, the evangelical world stands to lose a good deal of its clout if it doesn’t adopt more conciliatory views on hot-button social issues. “Smart political leaders find opportunities to solve problems, not simply to take a stand,” he said. “Most evangelicals don’t want more polarization.”

Congressional Republicans could be hamstrung by much the same difficulty, Cizik said, as they weigh the wisdom of compromising on or stonewalling major Obama initiatives. Either approach “may lead them in the same direction, namely decreasing influence and irrelevance,” he said.

Demographics vs. Discipline

Fiscal conservatives are facing internal discord, too, especially since the Bush era that began with a pair of deep tax cuts, ended with the financial bailout, and featured enormous spending on two wars, minimally restrained growth in domestic spending and the first $1 trillion annual federal deficit in history. “What happened is that the fiscal conservatives in power were seduced into focusing on just one element of that, tax policy,” thereby ignoring the need to also cut government spending, said the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Smith. “It doesn’t mater if you run up debt paying cash or credit. You still have to pay for it.”

Most troubling, said Smith, is that congressional Republicans, once known for their ability to generate compelling policy ideas, are now struggling to articulate conservative views. Even in areas where Bush held firm to conservative principles, such as environmental regulation, Smith said, liberals have successfully framed the issues in their favor: “Many conservatives believe the popular wisdom about how to address such issues is wrong, but they haven’t found a good way of articulating an alternative.”

The dyspeptic mood has even reached the American Enterprise Institute, long an incubator of conservative policy solutions, which last week invited a prominent critic, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress, to address a seminar on whether conservatives are “in the grip of dead ideas.”

Some prominent conservatives are pressing on in campaign mode, echoing the culture-war style appeals from the McCain campaign, even though such tactics proved largely ineffective in the general election. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, in opposing the House’s stimulus legislation, argued it “could open billions of taxpayer dollars to left-wing groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now” — the group, known as ACORN, does political organizing of poor people and was the focus of last fall’s GOP ire about potential voter-registration fraud. Both the American Conservative Union and FreedomWorks have since echoed Boehner’s line of attack. Similarly, the popular conservative newsletter GOPUSA, last week revived McCain’s campaign one-liner that Obama’s main motivation was to “spread the wealth around.”

Such appeals underscore the divide between those conservatives who believe the GOP just needs to deliver its message more effectively and those who think demographic changes will eventually compel Republicans to moderate their rhetoric.

“I’ve never bought into the post-election analysis that somehow the country has changed,” said Bobby Eberle, GOPUSA’s publisher. “It’s the same country. They just saw Republicans turn away from what got them to power, so they voted them out.”

But others argue that conservatives ought to be willing to examine their own failings and the marketplace of ideas in order to win national elections again. “The economic circumstances of the present raise serious doubts about whether the Republican Party has served the country well,” Cizik said.

He’s not alone. A desire to reach out to nontraditional Republicans certainly helped Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland who’s a moderate voice in the party, to win election last month as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. Steele said in his acceptance speech he saw no benefit in obstructionism. “For those who wish to obstruct,” he said, “Get ready to get knocked over.”

A Wobbly Base?

If moderate voices don’t knock over the hard-liners, financial pressures might. Often a shift in power in Washington benefits interest groups of the opposite ideology, as was the case for conservative advocates after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and for liberal groups after Bush won in 2000. In each case, fired-up partisans increased their donations to interest groups that pledged to fight the new president. But such donor enthusiasm has yet to materialize for conservatives since Obama’s victory.

For example, two weeks after the November election, Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based conservative group, announced it was cutting a fifth of its workforce, or more than 200 employees. The move followed a staff reduction of nearly 50 in September. Now, Perkins says, the Family Research Council may soon follow suit because its revenues are down 15 percent from the previous year.

In Perkins’ view, Obama deserves credit for assuaging some of the concerns of conservative donors with moderate rhetoric. But Perkins, hopeful for a funding pickup later this year, sees little prospect for the détente lasting. “He made himself look like a moderate, but I think that, as he forces Americans to go places they don’t want to go, people will see how radical his policies are and, sacrificially, step forward.”

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