The fight within the Republicans' shrinking tent

Neil Macdonald on the latest round of Republican infighting.

Last fall, when John McCain arrived at the Republican convention in Minnesota with his newly chosen running mate Sarah Palin in tow, I met, and persistently tried to cozy up to, one particular delegate among the thousands gathered in the lovely city of St. Paul.

We were both staying at the same hotel and I was determined to gain whatever insights he could offer into his party's plan to remain in power after eight years of George W. Bush.

It wasn't an easy connection to make. He was a pretty conservative fellow and any discussion had to begin with a lecture on the left-wing, anti-Republican, pro-abortion, anti-military, pro-gay bias of just about all reporters.

That said, he was utterly delighted McCain had chosen Palin. The presence of a down-the-line rightie on the ticket, someone with unquestionable ideological purity, was, for him, soothing evidence that his party was resisting a pull to the centre just for the sake of a few votes.

In one conversation, I couldn't resist asking him why there wasn't a greater role for Bush at the convention. There could, after all, be no doubt about W's conservative bona fides.

Obama's newest pal: former Republican, Senator Arlen Specter crosses the floor and all but ensures the Democrat's ability to pass their ambitious legislative agenda without serious opposition. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

"We're not crazy," he replied, in a flash of electoral pragmatism.

You do have to wonder, though, given the machinations going on today in the Grand Old Party.

The purifiers

As the Republicans ponder how to return from political Siberia, a significant constituency in the party is arguing that the solution is ideological purification — a return to conservative principles they believe were lost in the pursuit of power.

These are the same people who, if it had been feasible, would have had Palin at the top of the ticket last fall.

They're also the ones who denounce President Barack Obama as a "socialist" for spending trillions to fight a recession that has taken the jobs of more than five million Americans. And who still answer the "Ban Gay Marriage" war cry, as state after state legalizes it and polls find a clear majority of younger Americans in support of the idea.

They are the hardliners who organized a latter-day version of the Boston "tea party" last month in a handful of U.S. cities to protest what they saw as taxation without representation.

Unfortunately, that idea didn't work out so well. First, any taxation today comes with representation (full congressional approval); and, second, the protesters called themselves "teabaggers," not understanding that term's raunchy double meaning, which we are not going to explain here but which was picked up immediately by delighted left-wing critics.

This is a win?

But back to purification. These are the Republicans who actually cheered — cheered! — when Arlen Specter, a Republican senator for nearly 40 years, defected to the Democrats last week. 

Specter was, in fact, chased out of the party by a conservative purity squad called the Club for Growth, a free-enterprise, anti-tax group bankrolled by such figures as billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, cosmetics executive Ron Lauder and financier Charles Schwab.

Specter's heresies included his pro-choice views on abortion and having voted for Obama's stimulus package. As a result, he found himself on the club's list of RINOs (for Republicans in Name Only) and facing a hard-line right-winger, selected by the group, to unseat him in the Republican primary next year.

With the Pennsylvania Republican party undergoing its own de facto purification, Specter concluded he couldn't win the nomination and decided to save his own skin.

His defection virtually assures congressional Democrats the filibuster-proof majority they need to push through Obama's health-care reforms, among other things.

But the Club for Growth declared victory nonetheless. So what if people were leaving the party? Let the Democrats have their big tent.

"Let's look what a big-tent Republican party gets you," said Andy Roth, the Club for Growth's vice-president. "Over the last eight years, we had big government with a party that had no identity. People like Specter destroyed the Republican brand."

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin rejoiced that the "turncoat" Specter was gone: "Don't let the door hit you on your way out," she enthused.

"Get ready to go to the mat, baby," Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele advised the newest Democratic senator. "Because we're coming after you and taking you out."

Changing tents

Good luck with that one.

As Specter well knows, 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans have filed into the Democratic tent since Barack Obama won last year.

Plus, voters in that state threw out an ideologically pure conservative senator (Rick Santorum) in 2006, choosing a middle-of-the road Democrat in his place.

More pragmatic Republicans regard all this purification business with a mixture of alarm and panic.

"If Obama and the Democrats control not just the left side of the playing field, but also the broad middle, then we are in for generations of irrelevancy," says veteran GOP strategist John Weaver. "This grand experiment to shrink the base to its purest form will find us confined to a phone booth."

As for Democrats, most of them are just urging on the Club for Growth's agenda.

"The narrower the Republicans get," party strategist Tad Devine told me this week, "the more likely we are to succeed at every level of election."

Devine looks to the numbers. Every serious national poll, he points out, shows self-identifying Republicans dropping from 30-odd per cent of the electorate into the 20s.

"Every one of those percentage points is 1.3 to 1.4 million people. So they have lost maybe 10, 12, 15 million people who would stand up and say 'I'm a Republican.'"

The fight within

Facing losses on such a scale, a group of prominent Republican moderates recently came together to form something called the National Council for a New America, to travel the country and consult Americans on the way forward.

The group is backed by such people as McCain — who now pointedly omits Palin's name from his personal list of presidential nominees — as well as House minority whip Eric Cantor, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, brother of W.  Their launching statement stressed that the new council is not tied down on ideology and open to those who do not call necessarily themselves Republicans. Above all, they say, they are looking for new policy ideas.

You would think that can only be a good idea.

The United States has produced the brainiest and most persuasive class of conservative thinkers in modern history.

They are in no small part responsible for the fact that, even now, most of the world's capital resides right here in this country.

People like George Will, Newt Gingrich and the late Jack Kemp and William F. Buckley have made their right-leaning counterparts in Canada and Europe seem almost pusillanimous by comparison.

But people like that are not the driving force behind the Republican party today (although Gingrich is resurgent). Its de facto leaders are conservative entertainers such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity of Fox News as well as the eternally dyspeptic Dick Cheney and, of course, Palin.

Limbaugh, for one, has nothing but scorn for this new Republican National Council: "They despise Sarah Palin," he advised his audience this week. "According to them, she's embarrassing."

Homing in on the middle-of-the-roaders, Cheney advised Republicans to avoid any "moderation," declaring this week: "I for one am not prepared to do that, and I think most of us aren't."

Limbaugh urged moderate Republicans to come out and admit what he says they are: Democrats.

Empty that tent a little more, in other words.