Political Battle Under Way Within GOP, Say Conservative Leaders

By Fred Lucas | November 5, 2008 | 6:03 AM EST

President Bush at a graduation ceremony for new FBI agents at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(CNSNews.com) – Facing the most liberal president and Congress in a generation, conservative stalwarts do not blame the GOP’s disastrous election performance solely on Republican nominee John McCain or on President George W. Bush. The ultimate culprit, some say, has been big government Republicanism.
Long-time conservative activist Richard Viguerie thinks the Republican Party’s problem this year is not unlike its problem in previous election cycles.
“Moderate and liberal have not done very well,” Viguerie, the chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, told CNSNews.com. “Both Bushes had problems, and Bush the son nearly destroyed the Republican Party. People are looking for a clear conservative choice.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said this is not the first time Republicans have had a bad election cycle.
“We will get the same advice from the establishment press, which will advise the party to move left,” he said. But when that was tried, it did not work, Norquist told CNSNews.com.
He said Republicans win by running on President Ronald Reagan’s ideas and lose when they move left. He cited President George H. W. Bush’s failed reelection campaign in 1992 after running successfully as a Reagan tax-cutter in 1988, as well as Bob Dole in 1996 who had previously opposed the Reagan tax cuts, and now McCain, who has supported legislation on campaign finance reform and global warming.
Though President-elect Barack Obama has the most liberal record in the U.S. Senate, according to the National Journal rankings, Norquist said Obama did not run as a liberal but rather as a tax-cutter.
“He may be able to govern as a left winger … but if he tries to move the country too far left, that will lead to the Republican coalition coming together,” Norquist said. He added that former President Bill Clinton “united the Republican coalition when he was a threat to taxpayers, gun owners and Christians.”
Do not count on the Republicans uniting, said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and author of “Leviathan on the Right: How Big Government Conservatives Brought Down the Republican Revolution.”
Tanner expects to see a battle between three factions of the conservative movement: the big-government Republicans that support using free market ideas to promote universal health care and higher wages; populists who are culturally conservative, oppose free trade and support tougher border enforcement; and the traditional, small-government conservatives who want to shrink the size of government.
The prominence of big-government Republicans has presented less of a clear choice to voters, delivering a bigger opportunity for Democrats, Tanner said.
“The Republican party likely needs all three factions to win,” Tanner told CNSNews.com. “They had the Reagan coalition until George W. Bush. Before, they had disparate ideas, but all were against a massive federal government. Under Bush, they lost that.”
Those opponents of expanded government should brace themselves, Tanner said.
“This is no doubt the most liberal Congress and president since Lyndon Johnson,” Tanner said. “The next couple of years will not just see big government but enormous government, with no checks and balance.”
It is important to separate the Republican Party from the conservative movement, said Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He cited a recent poll that said 57 percent of Americans identify themselves as “very or somewhat” conservative. He thinks the conservative movement is strong, on many fronts such as alternative media and a consistent philosophy.
“The area we are lacking is principled and charismatic leadership,” Edwards told CNSNews.com.
But clinging to Reagan is part of the problem for the conservative movement and the Republican Party, said David Frum, a former speechwriter for the Bush White House and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It was different in 1980 and now,” Frum told CNSNews.com. “The Democratic Party was more economically left wing than now. If those conditions occur again, maybe we could see a repeat of Ronald Reagan. But we need to make our plans that Democrats are going to bring their best game. We need to expect them to govern like Clinton, Rubin and Greenspan -- not like Carter.”
He also faulted a poor strategy by the GOP.
“Republicans have lost minorities, the young, and have increasingly lost educated voters,” Frum said. “The Republican strategy that has been intensifying is extracting votes from a dwindling category: the middle class, lower-educated people. That’s why ‘Joe the Plumber’ was so popular among Republicans.”
Viguerie, with ConservativeHQ.com, scoffed at Frum’s analysis.
“The Republican Party folded under the neoconservatives and created a monstrosity, now they are trying to disavow their parentage,” Viguerie said. “Frum was part of that, whether domestic policy or foreign policy, advocating big government. America is rejecting them. Congressional Republicans have not governed as Reagan.”
He added, “Obama is a socialist. He has a strong left-wing majority. Bill Clinton governed the way he did because he had a Republican Congress. He overreached with gays in the military and national health care when he had a Democratic Congress.”
This is no time for Republicans to bury the Reagan legacy any more than Democrats would try to bury the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, said John Berlau, director of the center for entrepreneurship at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.
With the Bush administration, conservatism was murky, Berlau said, but a Democratic government could make the choice more clear.
“McCain was ahead of Obama in the polls until he backed the bailout,” Berlau said. “With Democrats, at least the battle lines are clearly drawn.”