Thursday, October 22, 2009
Consternation is overheard in the lounge of the Dead Elephant Society. The pukka sahibs have finally noticed -- the natives, it seems, are restless.
Conservatives roar; Republicans tremble
By JIM VANDEHEI & MIKE ALLEN | 10/22/09
Many top Republicans are growing worried that the party’s chances for reversing its electoral routs of 2006 and 2008 are being wounded by the flamboyant rhetoric and angry tone of conservative activists and media personalities, according to interviews with GOP officials and operatives.
Congressional leaders talk in private of being boxed in by commentators such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh — figures who are wildly popular with the conservative base but wildly controversial among other parts of the electorate, and who have proven records of making life miserable for senators and House members critical of their views or influence.
Some of the leading 2012 candidates are described by operatives as grappling with the same tension. The challenge is to tap into the richest source of energy in the party — the disgust of grass-roots conservative activists with President Barack Obama and their hunger for a full-throated attack on his agenda — without coming off to the broader public as cranky and extreme.
Mitt Romney has purposely kept a lower profile and stuck to speeches on specific policy issues, in part to avoid the early trade-off between placating party activists and appearing presidential. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of the most active potential opponents for Obama in 2012, said that media portrayals of a narrow-minded party could make it harder to attract the middle-of-the-road voters needed to make the GOP a majority party again.
“The commentators are part of the coalition, not the whole coalition,” Pawlenty said in a phone interview. “The party needs to be about addition, not subtraction — but not at the expense of watering down its principles.”
“We need more voices,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, one of the party’s up-and-coming leaders. “Our party’s challenge has been that we need to be more inclusive — we need to attract the middle again. ... When one party controls all the levers of power in Washington, they’re going to try and villainize whoever they can on our side. It gives us an opportunity now to try and harness the energy and point it in a positive direction, so that we can attract the middle of the country to the common-sense conservative views that we have been about as a party.”
Political operatives of all stripes like to fancy themselves as coolly controlling practitioners — who can shape public images and direct the activities of party regulars from their perches in Washington.
But the reality of the GOP during the Obama presidency is that the party’s image and priorities are in many ways being imposed on Washington — driven by grass-roots energies that lawmakers and strategists can scarcely control.
At the same time, there are powerful incentives for Washington politicians to play to the crowd and bow to the influence of commentators like Beck, who at the moment is far more famous than any of the GOP’s congressional leaders.
When Republicans such as Rep. Phil Gingrey have complained about these figures in public, most have quickly apologized in the face of outraged phone calls and e-mails from conservative activists.
House and Senate Republicans both seized on the issue of federal funding for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now after Obama critic Andrew Breitbart launched the controversy on his site BigGovernment.com with video of two people posing as a pimp and a prostitute in the group’s offices.
As vividly illustrated by Rep. Joe Wilson, elected Republicans are seeing the benefits — national media attention and fundraising — from embracing the trash-talking style of talk show hosts. Wilson went from being a little-known member of the House minority who had repeatedly failed to get on the A-list committees to a cause célèbre for the right wing because he shouted “You lie” at Obama during a joint session of Congress.
Though he apologized to the president through chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Wilson moved quickly to exploit his brush with fame, posting Web videos to raise money, appearing on Sean Hannity’s show, getting a coveted invite on “Fox News Sunday” — and even being asked to raise money for some of his conservative colleagues. Most rank-and-file Republicans have to spend hours on the phone pleading for money and relish the chance to be taken seriously by a major Sunday show.
But some Republicans worry the party could squander an opportunity to capitalize on voters’ concerns about Obama and the Democratic Congress because they come off looking shallow, sharply partisan or just plain odd to persuadable voters.
Warning of the influence of the Fox host, who recently accused Obama of racism against whites, George W. Bush White House veteran Peter Wehner wrote last month: “Beck seems to be a roiling mix of fear, resentment and anger — the antithesis of Ronald Reagan.”
Still, these concerns apparently are not powerful enough to prompt most elected Republicans to take public stands against the rhetoric coming from the web of conservative talk show hosts, websites and public activists.
Ed Gillespie, who was counselor to Bush and has started a conservative group called Resurgent Republicans, said his polling shows rising numbers of persuadable voters who are growing disenchanted with the Obama administration’s policies but nevertheless remain invested in the president.
“Our party has to bring those voters along with a critique of policies, not the kind of harsh rhetoric the left used against former President Bush,” Gillespie said.
“Without a good slice of the independents, we are doomed,” said former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).
The only Republicans standing up to Beck and other conservative activists right now are familiar iconoclasts like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and New York Times columnist David Brooks — both of whom are distrusted by many Republicans for their frequent departures from conservative orthodoxy.
Graham, earlier this month, mocked Beck’s famous on-air cry and warned that the Fox News talk show host is “not aligned with any party as far as I can tell. He’s aligned with cynicism.” Not long afterward, he was heckled by conservatives at a political event back home.
Brooks, a Republican who has written both favorably and critically about Obama, amplified Graham’s concern with the party’s obsequious relationship with Beck and Limbaugh. “It is a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness,” he wrote. “It is a story as old as ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain.”
Allies of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have detailed for POLITICO how the former GOP presidential nominee is dismayed with the direction of the party and put an unusual amount of time and effort into trying to push the party in a more centrist direction.
All three figures are often irritants to establishment Republicans — but in this case, many Republicans said privately they were in agreement that they need to move beyond the hard-core right to succeed.
But this critique goes to a major fault line within the party. Many activists believe the party lost because McCain failed to present a clear and genuine ideological contrast — and that the party abandoned principles through excessive spending during the Bush years.
The debate means the argument over whether outspoken talk show hosts are reviving a beaten party or trashing its brand is likely to persist through the 2010 midterms and into the 2012 presidential primary.
On the one hand, the GOP seems to be surging a bit as it sharpens its attacks. The party is doing better than it has in recent history when it comes to generic matchups for the 2010 midterms. Beck, other Fox News commentators and Breitbart are clearly landing some punches on Obama.
Their efforts helped stoke turnout at the August town halls, forced the mainstream media and Obama himself to reckon with a scandal at ACORN and incendiary comments and led to the resignation of green jobs czar Van Jones.
On the other hand, the party’s image more broadly remains in the dumps. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found that only 20 percent of those surveyed consider themselves Republicans. A larger study by the Pew Research Center this spring captured a similar trend: The share of independents in the electorate is the highest in 70 years (36 percent), while the share of voters who call themselves Republicans is the lowest in 30 years (23 percent, compared with 35 percent for Democrats).
Republicans in Congress are even more unpopular than the very unpopular Democrats who are running the House and the Senate. This suggests something has to change for a true GOP resurgence to take place.
Karl Rove, the chief political strategist for Bush, said impressions of the Republican Party as a captive of a fringe reflect “a cynical and dismissive and small-minded view of who the American voter is.
“The question will be whether the Republican candidates next year can talk about a lot of kitchen-table issues and the deficit and spending,” Rove said. “Rush Limbaugh won’t be on the ballot.”
This big tension is playing out in a smaller way in the special election in upstate New York. Congressional leaders are backing moderate Dede Scozzafava, despite her liberal views on abortion and other issues, because they think she has the best chance of winning this swing district. Conservatives, including many who participated in the much-publicized “tea party” protests, are convinced she is insufficiently Republican, so they are throwing their support and money to third-party candidate Doug Hoffman.
The result: Polls show the Republican vote could be so split that a lackluster Democratic candidate could pull off a win. If Republicans blow this race, it will leave the GOP holding only two of New York’s 29 House seats. A decade ago, it had 14, most of which were occupied by Northeast moderates who no longer feel welcome in the party and were voted in by independents who remain very skeptical of the party’s policy solutions.