The GOP's Strains Are Showing

Despite the best efforts of the popular Governor Arnold and First Lady Laura, it's a fractious crowd inside the party's big tent

By Lorraine Woellert

Compassion would seem to be an easy sell. Who could be against adoption and AIDS research? Who could object to attacks on the scourge of breast cancer or the evil of Soviet-era communism? But as the Republican National Convention pressed its second-night theme -- People of Compassion -- the party unwittingly showed that even caring can be controversial.

GOP delegates fanned out across New York City on service projects Tuesday. But an evening spent hailing community service brought out some fascinating juxtapositions that showed just how hard it can be to balance conservative bootstrap self-help with crowd-pleasing promises to help the needy of all stripes.

At the end of the day, the party's moderates were griping that the centrist face put forward for prime-time TV was slightly disingenuous. And social conservatives fretted at the wasted opportunity to woo the 4 million evangelicals who stayed home on Election Day four years ago.


  Only one speaker managed to bring everyone together, if only for 20 minutes: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The GOP's not-so-secret weapon wowed the crowd with a masterful speech that balanced macho conservatism with sweeping compassion -- and a dollop of humor for good measure.

"To my fellow immigrants listening tonight, I want you to know how welcome you are in this party," said Compassionate Arnold. Then came Body Builder Arnold: "To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don't be economic girlie men!"

Building on nightmarish stories of his childhood in an Austria partly occupied by the Soviet Union, Schwarzenegger recalled his first exposure to American politics in 1968. "I heard [Hubert] Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism -- which is what I had just left." But then he heard Richard Nixon. "Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air."


  Instead of glossing over the party's divisions, Schwarzenegger encouraged them. "Maybe, just maybe, you don't agree with this party on every single issue. I say to you tonight, I believe that's not only O.K., that's what's great about this country," he said. "Here we can respectfully disagree and still be patriotic, still be American, and still be good Republicans."

Schwarzenegger didn't get into abortion rights or gay marriage in front of the TV cameras, but he did deliver a gift to the party's social conservatives before leaving California for New York. He signed a bill -- championed by the Traditional Values Coalition -- requiring schools to notify parents when they bring people into classrooms to talk about sex.

Closing the night, First Lady Laura Bush took the edge off the delegates' Arnold adrenaline rush with the party's kinder, gentler face and 20 minutes of apple-pie earnestness -- Barney the First Dog, backyard barbecues, hopes, hugs, and her husband's graying hair. "George and I grew up in West Texas, where the sky seems endless...and so do the possibilities," she declared. "He brings that optimism, that sense of possibility, that certainty that a better day is before us to his job every day."


  The Arnold-to-Laura handoff was likely to please the convention's prime-time viewers. An Aug. 23-25 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll gave Laura Bush a 63% approval rating and scored Arnold at 56% -- both better than the President's 52%.

Overall, however, the Tuesday night mix left both wings of the GOP disgruntled. Representative Mike Castle (R-Del.), a leading member of the party's centrist coalition, says the prominence of moderates on the convention podium doesn't reflect any commitment to move to the center. Instead, he says, it's part contrivance and part simple luck: Some of the party's biggest TV-ready celebs -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and movie star Arnold -- just happen to be Republican moderates.

"I think they were selected because of their popularity. They happen to be moderate as well," Castle says. "I hope the Republican Party will take some note of that."


  From the other end of the spectrum, Tony Perkins, president of the socially conservative Family Research Council, doesn't begrudge the moderate message. All he wants is his side's 15 minutes. "There's a face missing from the podium," Perkins says. "Evangelicals are about a third of the delegates. About a quarter of the party are evangelicals. We cannot take them for granted."

The Bush campaign answers its critics, especially the conservative wing, with the argument that flexibility is necessary to political survival in changing times. "One of the greatest things about conservatism, in my opinion, is that conservatism is flexible enough to adapt its fundamental belief in freedom to meet the new challenges that we face," says Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman.

He dismissed the idea that the party's compassion theme was an excuse to prominently feature moderates during prime time. "Look, we're a big and growing party," he says. "Unity and unanimity are two different things.... We don't agree on everything." But Republicans do agree on core issues such as security, tax reduction, lawsuit reform, and the ownership society. "There's a fundamental level of agreement in our party."


  Perhaps, but there's enough disagreement to make campaigning -- and policymaking -- difficult. With turnout so critical this year, Bush can't afford any stay-at-home voters on Election Day.

But fiscal conservatives are still licking the wounds they incurred in Bush's drive for a budget-busting Medicare drug bill. The Christian Right is suspicious of the big-government preemption of local school control underlying Bush's education policy. Centrists are queasy with the party's staunch anti-abortion platform and frustrated with Bush's strict limits on stem-cell research. And the GOP's Left -- the gays and lesbians of the Log Cabin Republicans -- won't endorse the President they backed four years ago.

Bush can't take anyone for granted. On stage, that GOP big tent is bulging at the seams. But the real test of Bush's policy of inclusiveness will be at the polls on Nov. 2.

With Richard S. Dunham

Woellert is BusinessWeek's Washington legal-affairs correspondent

Edited by Mike McNamee

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE