The GOP’s ‘Henry Clay Moment’

Posted May 9, 2003 at 2:02pm

On the surface, life is grand for the Grand Old Party. Republicans control the White House and Congress, they generally exercise strong party discipline, and their troops around the country seem energized.

But you don’t have to search too deeply to see fissures emerging within the GOP — fissures that could determine whether President Bush wins another term and the party maintains its hold on Congress.

These fissures are popping up on a host of major issues, from taxes to foreign affairs to social controversies. They provide an enticing opening for Democrats who are struggling, due to their own internal conflicts, to craft a coherent message for 2004.

In essence, Republicans are having what you might call a “Henry Clay moment.” Clay, the great pre-Civil War leader from Kentucky, was once told that his opposition to slavery would cost him the presidency. “I’d rather be right than be president,” replied the onetime Speaker, who never did win the highest office.

The question for today’s Republicans is: Do they, too, want to be “right,” above all else, even if their “rightness” threatens their support among swing voters? That is, do they want to push the purest, most conservative proposals that appeal to their most loyal supporters, even if they repel mainstream voters?

Complicating the calculation is the GOP’s recent history. The first President George Bush lost his bid for re-election in 1992 and many Republicans, including his son, believe he erred by raising taxes in 1990, thus eroding support among the party’s hard-core, activist, anti-tax base.

On taxes, the current President Bush and GOP leaders are playing to that base by pushing hard for the largest possible tax cut, though far more Americans want to cut the deficit. Nor are Republicans making much effort to broaden support for a tax cut; their proposals would provide the greatest share of benefits to the most well-off, again enabling Democrats to paint the GOP as an out-of-touch plutocracy.

Faced with opposition from GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio) to a tax cut of more than $350 billion, the White House and the Club for Growth sought to strong-arm the pair, rather than take the $350 billion and declare victory. The “all or nothing” approach could leave the White House with nothing legislatively but an image of extremism among average Americans who have other concerns.

On foreign affairs, the GOP faces a widening split between its “neoconservative” wing, which promotes the robust use of American power to achieve American ends, and its “realist” wing, which promotes diplomacy to confront terrorists and rogue nations. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) recent broadside against the State Department prompted an old Gingrich ally, ex-Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), to rebuke him for giving ammunition to the president’s enemies at home and abroad.

Republicans are split on social issues, too. Pro-family groups expressed outrage that the White House did not more aggressively embrace Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who ignited a storm of controversy by comparing homosexuality to incest and polygamy. Anti-abortion-rights activists criticized the president for pushing through the House his proposal for $15 billion in AIDS relief for Africa. And the National Rifle Association is complaining that the president supports an extension of the ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, which expires next year.

The GOP’s current dilemma is hardly unique. In politics, victory often plants the seeds of its own destruction. Flush with power, some members of the in-party want to seize the moment, aggressively push its agenda and produce whatever possible in the time it has.

Others advise caution, hoping to maintain the mainstream support that will ensure re-election. They seek to moderate the agenda, to work with a broad spectrum of interests, and to move the agenda incrementally while downplaying the parts of it that will raise suspicions of extremism.

The trick for the in-party is to do both, to push its agenda far enough to satisfy the base without alarming middle America. The problem is, with both parties increasingly captured by narrow interests outside the American mainstream, the trick has become a harder one to pull off.

Lawrence J. Haas, communications director to then-Vice President Al Gore, is director of public affairs at the PR firm Manning Selvage & Lee.