GOP Moderates and Conservatives Ready to Do Battle

by Stuart Rothenberg November 15, 2006 · 11:09 PM EST

In the past, it’s been the AFL-CIO against the Democratic Leadership Council. But not this year. This time, the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican Party have the pleasure of blaming and pointing fingers at each other for the party’s loss.

The blame game remains a staple in Washington, D.C., but it has been elevated to an art form in the national media, which is constitutionally unable to pass up the opportunity to get grown men and women to sneer at each other and launch unsupported accusations and recriminations.

Already, the Republican Majority for Choice and the Republican Main Street Partnership, both moderate groups, have criticized conservatives for the party’s defeat last week. Not surprisingly, conservative talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh has blamed the party’s “non-partisan identity” for its defeat.

I’ve watched (or been on) enough panels with Al From or Will Marshall on one side and Robert Borosage or someone from organized labor on the other to know that they tend to confuse rather than clarify. But that doesn’t mean these confrontations don’t draw an audience.

The early signs suggest that Republicans are no better than Democrats at finding the real reason for their party’s defeat or looking for ways to move forward productively.

The AFL-CIO, the DLC and a wide range of Democratic groups were all on the same side this year, but not because of anything they did. This year’s elections were about President Bush, and criticism of his performance in office united all Democrats.

The White House’s reliance in the past few years on a mobilize-the-base approach rather than a broaden-the-base strategy ought not obscure an obvious political reality: When it comes to elections, more votes are better than fewer votes, and a party with broad appeal is likely to be more successful at the ballot box than one with narrow appeal.

So get ready for the inevitable discussion: What do Republicans do now? Do they need to emphasize contrast with the Democrats and move rightward, or do they need to shift toward the middle to regain those independent voters they lost?

It’s a silly mistake for Republicans to want to choose between moderates and conservatives. The party needs both elements to maximize its chances every two years at the polls. That formula boosted Bush to two terms in the White House.

A party that moves too far to the right and makes conservatives completely happy runs the risk of alienating moderates and political independents. And a party that moves too far to the center to attract moderates will lose the energy of its base and risks losing its reason for being.

To dredge up the old formulation for former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), what cost the Republicans Congress this year wasn’t ideology, it was competence.

The Iraq War has been a disaster, and the president and his administration looked out of touch and ineffective in dealing with a number of important issues that surfaced in the past two years.

Bush critics rightly will point out that some of his mistakes followed from ideological assumptions, and in that sense his values and belief system weren’t totally irrelevant. But my point is a bit different: Republicans didn’t lose because they were too conservative. They didn’t lose because of their position on abortion or even because they may have favored personal accounts under Social Security, though in that case their ideology did lead them down a legislative blind alley.

Rather, the Republican Party lost last week because it — and particularly the president — didn’t do the job.

Politics is about arithmetic, and the GOP needs moderates and conservatives to get back to 218 seats in the House and 51 seats in the Senate sometime soon. Arguments about who “caused” the party’s defeat last week are just as irrelevant and mind-numbing as were the Democrats’ arguments after 1994 and 2004.

For the GOP, the fact that the party holds just one of 22 House seats in New England ought to be more than disquieting. It should be seen as disastrous. The same is true about growing Republican weakness in northern suburbs in the orbit of New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, which have shown a willingness to vote even for relatively weak Democratic presidential nominees.

Conservatives ought to wake up, smell the coffee and consider themselves and their party lucky to have had on their team retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.), now-defeated moderates like Reps. Sue Kelly (N.Y.) and Nancy Johnson (Conn.) and — yes — even Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa) and Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.). Conservatives often may have been frustrated by some of their votes, but those moderates were able to win in territory ranging from marginal to hostile.

As in 1982, GOP moderates took a disproportionate hit last Tuesday, since they represented districts in which their continuance in office depended on getting Democratic votes. Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Jim Walsh (N.Y.) were the exceptions, since they narrowly survived. Republicans aren’t likely to regain most of these districts in 2008, and they may have to wait for a midterm election with a Democrat in the White House to do so again.

The bottom line is simple: Conservative and moderate Republicans need each other to gain power.