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."
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The split between Republican ideologues and strategists has deep roots. Many GOP operatives, consultants, and tacticians believe the party will be relegated to enduring minority status unless elected officials aggressively tone down and reach out: Tone down the hard-edged stands on such issues as gay marriage and abortion to avoid alienating socially liberal young voters; And reach out to minorities, specifically to Hispanics, once immigration returns to the front burner. Party professionals, in stark contrast to movement conservatives, argue for the necessity of a version of immigration reform which makes possible -- at least for some -- a "path" to citizenship.
"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."( Collapse )