Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
Republican Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina (left) greets Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke on Capitol Hill. Inglis has come under fire from some conservatives, who accuse him of being a RINO, or "Republican In Name Only."
Republican Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina (left) greets Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke on Capitol Hill. Inglis has come under fire from some conservatives, who accuse him of being a RINO, or "Republican In Name Only." Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
By any measure, Republican Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina is a solid conservative. In the 1990s, he was a vehement opponent of President Clinton. Last year, he got an "A" from the National Rifle Association, and an 84 percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union. His votes to cut budgets, leave markets unregulated and restrict abortions put him among the most conservative of his party.
But things are different these days. In the past three years, the Republican Party has lost control of the House, the Senate and the White House. The result is a shrunken, somewhat disoriented GOP, one that is on a search for its soul. And Inglis' district in South Carolina is a kind of microcosm of this. It's where the congressman is already facing stiff opposition in the 2010 Republican primary, from four challengers who say he isn't conservative enough.
The Joe Wilson Effect
Consider this: Last week, Inglis did something that really ticked off some of his constituents. He was one of only seven Republicans who voted in favor of reprimanding South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson — the man who yelled "you lie" at President Obama during a Sept. 9 speech to Congress.
At a constituent meeting at a Fuddruckers in Greenville, S.C., Inglis tried to explain:
"He admits that he violated the rules, right? And he apologized to the president. And what I said privately was, 'Joe, there's a second thing you gotta do. You gotta apologize to the forum,' " Inglis said. About 75 people were packed into the back room of the restaurant, many of them yelling at Inglis. The meeting is supposed to be about health care — what Inglis calls a "let's talk." But the subject of Joe Wilson's outburst dominates. People defend Wilson, and the crowd cheers. It goes on like that for almost two hours. People are mad about Iraq, angry about all the bailouts, and annoyed that Inglis voted for the banking bailout.
Inglis reflects on it: "Well, sometimes we have 'let's holler' rather than 'let's talk,' " he says. "We had a little bit of hollering today. And, you know, what I heard was the frustration people feel at the sense of powerlessness to stop the 'open wide, we're gonna ram this down.' "
The problem for Inglis is that the crowd wasn't blaming President Obama and the leaders in Congress. They're angry at him for not doing enough to stop the Democrats.
But Inglis says he's not worried. He believes that when the Republican primary rolls around in June, cooler heads will prevail.
"Our challenge as Republicans is to win at offering solutions with a hopeful, optimistic voice, rather than shrinking the party down to a snarling few who don't present their ideas with optimism, but rather just play on the worst fears of a small group of people," he says.
'It's About The Cause'
It's a noble aspiration, perhaps — but not much political protection. Dave Thomas is a South Carolina state senator who would like to take Inglis' seat.
"I was appalled and aghast that there was piling on going on, onto someone like Joe Wilson, who did not have a mean spirit about what he did, it just sorta popped out," Thomas says. He sits in his small law office, his desk facing a framed poster of Ronald Reagan. The picture is from a primary rally in 1980, when Thomas was a young Republican, lucky enough to get to drive one of the cars that picked Reagan up at the airport. He remembers it well.
"I said, 'Gov. Reagan, I just think the world of you,' etc., etc. He said, 'Well, David, it's not about me. It's about the cause. Don't forget that. It's about the cause.' And that's right! It's about the cause — the philosophical underpinnings that make America what it is," Thomas says. "A lot of Republicans believe they've been let down, abandoned, because philosophically their principles have not been adhered to and their party has to some degree been taken over, so there's a kind of revolt going on."
Inglis' other main challenger is a well-known prosecutor named Trey Gowdy. He also says this election is partly about Inglis and some of the votes he has cast, and partly about the Republican Party and what it will be in the future.
"I think there are a lot of people that are justifiably angry that throughout the decade of the 2000s, we had some combination of the House, the Senate and the White House," Gowdy says. "We did not shrink the size of government. We did not change the culture of Washington. We did not act differently from the other party. We became a faint echo of the Democrat party. And if that's what you're about, if that's what you want to be, then don't expect the conservatives to go with you."
Firing The First Shot
There's a risk to this, though. If conservatives "purify" the party, as they call it, they could end up with such a right-wing message nationwide that they lose even more moderate, centrist seats to the Democrats.
But that doesn't seem to bother the crowd back in South Carolina. Outside the Fuddruckers in Greenville, a toilet is bolted to the back of Harry Kibbler's pickup truck, with what appears to be a man upside down in the bowl. Bill Raish points at it: "It looks like Bob Inglis going down the commode," he says.
Kibbler says it's political theater — with a serious message about Congress. In 2010, he says, "There's a lot of folks that need to be replaced. It's not just Bob. This is the first shot of the RINO hunt."
RINO as in "Republican In Name Only." And this RINO hunt has its sights on Bob Inglis and any other Republican who doesn't hew strictly to the conservative message.