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GOP's conservative and liberal wings at war heading into ‘06 campaign

Insight | August 29 2006

President Bush has been trying to maintain a united Republican Party amid flagging conservative support and a split with the GOP’s liberal wing.

The two wings are so far apart that party strategists no longer envision a united front for the November congressional elections. The strategists said many of the liberals, already alienated from the White House, have been campaigning as opponents of the president in an effort to win re-election as part of an expected Democratic Party sweep of Congress.

''I think we've lost our way,'' said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and possible presidential contender in 2008. ''And I think the Republicans are going to be in some jeopardy for that and will be held accountable.''

The key leaders of the GOP’s liberal wing have been Mr. Hagel and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut. Mr. Shays, who faces a tough Democrat challenge for re-election, has told supporters that he would become one of the most powerful members of Congress should the Democrats win.

"If I'm in the minority," Mr. Shays, chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations, said earlier this year, "I'll be one of the most powerful members of Congress."

As a result, Mr. Shays, who concluded a visit to Iraq last week, has broken with Mr. Bush and supports a Pentagon withdrawal timetable from Iraq.

He has blamed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the Iraq war amid plans to hold three House hearings titled "Iraq: Democracy or Civil War."

"I haven't had faith in the secretary for a long time," Mr. Shays said. "I believe huge mistakes were made in disbanding the [Iraqi] army, the police and the border patrol."

Ryan Sager, a New York Post columnist, has published a book that argues that Mr. Bush's agenda has split the GOP. Entitled "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party," Mr. Sager says Mr. Bush's promotion of bigger government combined with evangelical Christian values has separated Republican support in the traditional South from what he termed "leave me alone states" such as Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Nevada.

Mr. Sager said Mr. Bush has attracted a new breed of Republicans, whom he termed big government conservatives. He said this group is mostly female, southern, religious, and seeks solutions from government.

"If the Republican Party is no longer the party of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, limited government, or fiscal restraint, then what is it?" asked the Cato Institute, which hosts Mr. Sager next week. "And what's a self-respecting, small-government, fiscally conservative, socially liberal voter supposed to do?"

In 2006, the GOP’s liberal wing has so far joined with the Democrats in blocking conservative-drafted legislation that would bolster the U.S. military presence in Iraq, halt illegal immigration, and aim at energy independence and health care reforms. Republican liberals also joined with Democrats against a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

"The dirty little secret is the liberal faction on Capitol Hill already outnumbers the conservative forces on many crucial issues, including immigration reform, energy independence, reasonable environmental regulation, health reform and federal spending," Mike Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in a recent analysis.

In the House, about 35 Republican members have joined the Democratic minority to block the conservative agenda. The GOP liberals have been effective in maintaining the moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas on the Outer Continental Shelf and in expanding the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency at a time when the United States remains threatened by a gasoline shortage.

"Republicans need to step forward and regain the conservative wing of the party that stands for fiscal responsibility, individual freedoms and protection of America's reputation and its borders," Newt Gingrich said in a report entitled "Thinking About November.” “The party has been an abysmal failure on all points for the last 12 years. The only reason they have not lost is due to the inability of the Democrats to come together as centrists."

As a result, conservatives have become increasingly suspicious of GOP sincerity. A Pew Research Center survey reported that 47 percent—an eight percent drop—regard the Republican Party as friendly to religion. Christian evangelists and Catholics have been the GOP’s leading constituents.

"The Republicans had done a good job of mobilizing those two groups in 2004 and that may be cooling a bit now," Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center said.

Mr. Bush has acknowledged the split in the GOP. On Aug. 21, the president said he was troubled that so many U.S. House and Senate candidates were calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

"There are a lot of good decent people saying 'Get out now. Vote for me, I'll do everything I can to cut off money,'" Mr. Bush said.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and expected 2008 presidential candidate, has determined that the November elections will mark a referendum on the administration's policy on Iraq. Mr. McCain, who has been campaigning for a range of GOP candidates, said the administration underestimated the U.S.-led military mission to stabilize Iraq and end the insurgency war.

''Most of the time we know these elections are local, but it's beginning to look more like some of them may be global as far as they are impacted by Iraq,'' Mr. McCain said. ''We've got to fight hard. We've got to win. We need to keep both houses of Congress. This is a very tough election coming up."

 

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