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Published: Monday, 2/11/2013

The war inside the Republican Party

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

You are thinking there is a war going on for the soul of the Republican Party. You are right, and it just went nuclear.

First, Karl Rove, who until last week was no one’s idea of a moderate, began an initiative to find Republican candidates with a good chance of winning general elections. That is political Esperanto for Republicans without a hint of tea on their breath.

Then L. Brent Bozell III, leader of a group called For America, went on the attack. He proclaimed that the “days of conservatives listening to the moderate GOP establishment are over,” and described many of the most familiar names in Republican politics as members of a “second Democrat Party in Washington.”

“When the GOP is once again unabashed in its support for real conservative values like freedom, prosperity and virtue, only then will it succeed,” he argued

Mr. Rove’s offensive is just the sort of thing that party leaders often do after a devastating defeat. The onetime George W. Bush guru has a historian’s view of politics. Surely he remembers the emergence in the mid-1980s of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council after a series of devastating Democratic losses in presidential elections.

The DLC was formed in 1985, after President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Walter Mondale were defeated by Ronald Reagan and before Gov. Michael Dukakis would suffer the same gloomy fate three years later.

The DLC’s leaders, who included Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, eventually the group’s chairman, sought to steer the Democrats away from the left. They argued that the party was addicted to liberal nominees who were doomed once they faced Republicans in the general election.

Now, many on the Tea Party right are employing the same idiom to describe their predicament after two consecutive losses to President Obama.

Mr. Bozell’s critique of Republican regulars: “Their idea of the most ‘electable’ presidential candidate was Mitt Romney, and before him John McCain, and before him Bob Dole, and we have all seen the results.”

Mr. Bozell isn’t wrong when he made this point: “If we had listened to them,’’ he said in reference to Mr. Rove and his allies, “there would be no Pat Toomey, no Marco Rubio, no Mike Lee, no Rand Paul, and no Ted Cruz in the Senate today.”

Mr. Bozell added: “In every case, the moderates said they too were ‘unelectable.’ It’s these same Rockefeller Republicans who said Ronald Reagan was unelectable. Instead of lectures, these moderates should stand aside and let the conservative movement lead the party back to prominence.”

Republicans are falling into the trap the conservatives’ favorite conservative, Winston Churchill, warned of when he said in his famous “finest hour” speech in 1940: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

The GOP’s future may be determined by ideology — how to fight the transfers of wealth, spending, and expanded rights they believe are part of a dangerous but ascendant Democratic creed. But there is no question it also will be shaped by demography.

In truth, the GOP has become more diverse. But it has a long way to go, and many Republicans speak openly about it.

Yet this question persists: Is the Republican range war good (as an expression of openness and a display of passion) or bad (as an unseemly spectacle that diverts attention from the work required to mount a comeback in the midterm congressional elections of 2014 and the presidential election of 2016) for the party?

Or maybe the question doesn’t matter. Parties out of office often fight with the party in power, but more often fight with themselves.

This may be an extraordinary struggle, but it is not an unusual one.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com


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