Republican Cage Match

Paul McLeary

During President Bush’s first term, most fiscally conservative Republicans remained mum as the administration gorged itself on a protracted spending spree that would have horrified previous Republican generations. But now that any concerns about his electability have been successfully dispatched, some of those same conservatives — including the diminished ranks of congressional moderates concerned about their own incumbencies in 2006 — are beginning to push back.

But what’s a movement without a leader? Christine Todd Whitman, fresh off her humiliating stint as EPA chief, looks to be making a run for this position with her new book, It’s My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America. Whitman pens a scathing indictment against the social fundamentalists” and extreme right” factions that have hijacked the party in recent years. Moderate Republicans who have strayed from [the administration’s] hard-line orthodoxy have been targeted by activists seeking to purge them from the party,” she writes. Whitman would like to see a return to a more traditional conservatism that supports fiscal restraint, reasonable and open discussion of social issues … and a foreign policy which is engaged with the rest of the world.”

Whitman warns the party that if they keep driving moderates out, they’ll have a hard time holding on to their congressional majority when the next election cycle comes around. But how much weight does Whitman’s threat carry? As this past election proved, Republicans don’t seem to have much of a problem with the far right’s agenda, or at least how this agenda has been packaged in vague notions of heartland values,” security” and freedom.”

But along with Whitman, those outnumbered holdouts in Congress have been making a bit of noise, too. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) worked hard to cap the president’s most recent tax cut at $350 billion and has publicly supported the U.S. sale of inexpensive imported drugs. Meanwhile, the growing fight over Social Security has sparked a full-fledged revolt against the president’s overreaching policy goals. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a member of the GOP leadership, recently told the Washington Post that 15 to 20 House Republicans are dead set against the proposal, and others estimate the number to be closer to 40. In addition, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a prominent moderate who was almost knocked off by a far-right primary rival this past spring, is on record as strongly opposing the president’s plan, as is longtime Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

Even given this growing opposition — and the best efforts of those like Whitman — moderate Republicans remain a minority in Congress, outnumbered 37 to 12 in the Senate and 178 to 53 in the House. As if this endangered species of conservative didn’t have enough opposition, into the fray wades our old friend Newt Gingrich to deliver the death blow. His new book, Winning the Future, billed as a 21st Century Contract With America,” is the counterweight to any hope progressives may have had for the immediate future of the Republican Party. Borrowing heavily from the far-right’s playbook, he laments the absence of God in public life and the loss of the Orwellian-sounding patriotic education” in our schools, all while trying to sell the president’s ownership society” as something other than the privatization of all public goods and services.

While the original Contract With America was a broad, ethically based policy initiative, Gingrich’s new tome reads like a collection of soft-headed partisan agitprop that relies heavily on the faith and family” meme. Most of it is typically groan-inducing, but when he closes the book with a 20-page Walking Tour of God in D.C.” — in which he catalogs every mention of religion etched on the capital’s monuments — he officially jumps the shark. Cloaking his arguments in the angry rhetoric of the far right, Gingrich proves Whitman correct about the bankrupt state of the Republican Party while simultaneously pushing her ilk further to the party establishment’s margins.

Fiscal or social moderates have not been completely shut out of the Republican Party — the fight over Social Security might invigorate this debate — but as of now, their rhetoric of reason is being drowned out by the shriller voices of the far right.

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Paul McLeary regularly reviews books for In These Times. For more go to his his Web site.
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