Republicans have decided now is a good time for a fight. Among themselves.
Arguments like the one between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and U.S. Senator Rand Paul over national security are showdowns that Steve LaTourette, a former Ohio congressman, is glad are happening three years before the presidential election.
Otherwise, LaTourette said, “you could be heading toward a 1964 cliff if you are not careful.”
As Republicans continue to sort through their future, having lost the popular vote for president in five of the last six elections, they are having intramural battles with echoes of 1964, when Barry Goldwater won the nomination at a convention rife with division over the role of the U.S. in the world and civil rights at home. Derided as an extremist, he went on to lose to President Lyndon Johnson in a landslide.
Now, Republicans are squabbling over the National Security Agency surveillance program, immigration and gay marriage. The Christie-Paul rift last week highlighted the divide, with the governor calling the senator’s criticism of the NSA program “dangerous” and the Kentuckian responding that his critic must have forgotten the Bill of Rights.
“It’s always healthy to have discussions from different wings of the party as the party works on its identity going into the midterms,” said LaTourette, who chose not to seek re-election to Congress in 2012 citing the extreme positions among some of his Republican colleagues. “It wouldn’t be so healthy if this was next year or 2015 and the focus is on who the presidential nominee will be.”
Still, there’s no indication that the internal feuding will stop, with Paul representing a more libertarian strain of conservatism that favors minimum government at home and abroad, and Christie and others who offer a more traditional view of limited government domestically with more robust engagement internationally.
Republicans are favored to retain control of the U.S. House and are within reach of winning the Senate, according to the most recent ratings by the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter that tracks congressional elections. The danger the divisions present to the party is in appealing to a national electorate, and both Paul and Christie are considered potential candidates for the 2016 presidential race.
For his part, Paul says he was trying to broaden his party’s base. In an interview in the Aug. 12 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Paul said he was “very serious about making the party more inclusive, making it a party where every ethnic group is welcome.”
Paul said there is “an emergence of a new wing of the Republican Party that’s concerned not only with economic liberty but with personal liberty and with having a less-aggressive foreign policy. So it’s providing people with an avenue to support a wing of the Republican Party that didn’t really, frankly, have much representation before 2010.”
The party’s divide is on display in Congress, where House Republicans are pushing for legislation that would limit abortions after 20 weeks and opposing the Senate version of an immigration bill that passed the upper chamber with 68 votes, including 14 Republicans. And Senator John McCain of Arizona has labeled some fellow Republicans “wacko birds” for their non-interventionist positions.
Two-thirds of Republicans and voters who lean that way in a Pew Research Center poll released July 31 said that the party “needs to address major problems,” while six in ten said the party needs to consider changing some of its positions and not simply improve its messaging.
Tea Party Sentiment
Yet the poll also found that, by 54 to 40 percent, these voters wanted the party to move further to the right, including an overwhelming number of those who identify with the anti-tax Tea Party wing of the party that helped elect Paul.
“You have obviously the Rand Pauls,” Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, “they are trying to stake out territory and make the case that Mitt Romney lost because he was not conservative enough, said LaTourette, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a Washington based group that describes itself as the ‘‘governing wing of the Republican Party.’’
‘‘Chris Christie and the wing of the party I belong to is the place where conservatives connect with people who live outside the South,’’ he said.
‘‘You can’t go into an election saying we have all the 50-year-old, angry, white guys voting for us and they have all the African Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans and women,’’ he said.
Mike Murphy, who has served as an adviser to several Republican presidential, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, said that ‘‘an intellectual debate like this is good because, the bigger the party is, the more debate, and if we all agreed it would be a small party.’’
‘‘In the House, they all agree and it’s a smaller wing of the party,’’ Murphy said. ‘‘So it is not necessarily a sign of weakness. My guess is that in a year or two the Christie wing has more numbers and the Paul wing has more passion.’’
In 1964, passion eventually won out. Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, who represented more established and moderate elements of the party, mounted challenges to Goldwater, who was backed by conservative insurgents. Goldwater routed his opponents in a convention that one of his biographers called the ‘‘Woodstock of the right.’’ Even as he suffered the later loss to Johnson, Goldwater laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement.
Today, moderate Republicans are a rarity, and few serious candidates for president have tried to claim that mantle since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, knows both sides of the divide. Inglis was once considered part of the firebrand wing of the party that came to power when Newt Gingrich became House speaker after the 1994 elections, only to be later driven from office by a challenge from a Tea Party-backed candidate in a primary in 2010.
‘‘It’s a search for definition of what the conservative movement is about,’’ said Inglis, who identified his efforts to combat global warming as a contributor to his loss.
‘‘The real concern for my party should be that in the last election we lost college-educated white folks, the first time that has happened,’’ said Inglis, executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. ‘‘That’s a very precarious position for the Republican Party to be in.’’
Republicans, Inglis said, are not likely to move toward the center on issues as a strategic way to regain the White House. ‘‘I don’t see it was a mushing out toward the center,’’ Inglis said. ‘‘That’s not what I would counsel. What I would counsel is real passion about what we believe. We are not moderates.’’
‘‘Rather we should be coming to the competition of ideas with really good ideas and deliver solutions that actually work based on free enterprise and free markets, and boldly, not in a mushy kind of way. What the country needs is deliverables from conservatives that actually work.’’
Too often, he said, voters, especially younger adults, see the party’s opposition to gay marriage and legislation to combat climate change, and distill it to ‘‘mean people suck. I think young people are looking at the conservative movement and saying, ‘Is this who you are? Does that sum you up?’ If it does, then we are out of here.’’
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