GOP Tries to Map Its Way Back to Power

President Bush says the Republicans took a "thumping" in last week's midterm elections. Republicans are now in the minority in the House and the Senate. So what should they do now? Robert Siegel asks influential Republicans about how their party should respond.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Remember the classic scene at the end of the 1972 political movie The Candidate? A Senate election campaign is over, the votes are counted and candidate Bill McKay - played by Robert Redford - turns to his campaign manger. McKay asks what do we do now. The irony was McKay had just won and no one had given a though to governing. That question - what do we do now? - is one that's asked after an election by a lot of people, winners and losers.

Our colleague Robert Siegel spent the past few talking with Republicans about their party and what they think the GOP should do now.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Ask a few Republican operatives and office holders what words should describe their party over the next two years and you hear a pretty familiar vocabulary.

Unidentified Man #1: That are party should be the optimistic, happy party with faith in the American people, you know.

Unidentified Man #2: Independent, flexible and they believe in good governmental practices that will help the individual.

Unidentified Man #3: Compassionate, full of ideas, hopeful, visionary.

Unidentified Man #4: Republicans have faith in Americans to succeed.

Unidentified Man #5: Empowering the individual and focus on the individual.

Unidentified Man #6: Pro-growth, pro-global competitiveness, pro-strong national security and winning the war on terror.

Unidentified Man #7: So it should be questioning, self-critical, but ultimately it has to be about believing that we're on the verge of a new era of American greatness.

SIEGEL: You don't hear these senior Republicans proposing a radical rethinking of the GOP. Here's Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Chairman.

Mr. ED GILLESPIE (Republican National Committee): I believe the country is a center right country. A majority of Americans are center and right, not left and far left, and the fact is we will reclaim that territory in the electorate and I think reclaim our majority.

SIEGEL: The Republicans I spoke with all recognize that corruption in Congress and the war in Iraq were problems that led to what President Bush conceded was an election day thumping. But Gillespie and others also see that in many races they lost, the glass was still 49 percent full.

Mr. GILLESPIE: Well, there were a remarkable number of seats. I think it's 27 seats that are within two percentage points or less. Most of those, obviously the lion's share of those, went to the Democratic candidate.

SIEGEL: The result, says Gillespie, was a typical loss of seats for a party whose president is halfway through a second term. So how do Republicans think they'll win those voters and those seats back? Republican strategist David Winston says stick to a core principal, a core message.

Mr. DAVID WINSTON (Republican strategist): Republicans have faith in Americans to succeed. Americans don't need government. Government can support them. It can be the safety net. But ultimately Republicans have the faith, and we're going to put forth policies that are going to give people the opportunity to accomplish the dreams and hopes that they have, not necessarily the dreams and hopes government wants them to have.

SIEGEL: Former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey echoes Winston's message. Solve people's problems and keep government out of things it's no good at. Armey says the biggest crisis on everyone's agenda in Washington is of course Iraq.

Mr. DICK ARMEY (Former Republican House Majority Leader): But once you get by Iraq, then look at the things that are worrying the American people. Retirement security is probably the biggest worry we have, and I don't care who you are, you're worried about it for three generations. You can be grandpa or you can be grandson and you're worried about it for three generations. Somebody's got to take this on.

SIEGEL: But didn't President Bush spend a year pushing a conservative approach to retirement security - i.e. overhauling Social Security? And didn't he fail at it? Well, Dick Armey said President Bush did what Republicans should not do, he invited a dialogue.

Mr. ARMEY: Dialogues are what Democrats do, not what Republicans do. Only liberals think if you've had a dialogue about something you've done something.

SIEGEL: The lesson, he says, take ownership of the issue. And another lesson, don't fall prey to your base. They demand too much and make compromise impossible. Take immigration. Dick Armey says the GOP should embrace the kind of bill that President Bush wanted - border security and a guest worker program.

Mr. ARMEY: He was kind of blocked by a Republican Party in the House that got kind of pushed over to an extreme sort of myopic position building walls. You know, I always love it, the hero of our party is Ronald Reagan. One of his most famous sentences ever was tear this wall. And now we've got our guys out there building walls.

SIEGEL: Republicans should be the party that gets things done. Empowering the individual, fiscal conservatism, chastising corrupt members - those are the easy bits of guidance for the GOP. What to do about Iraq isn't so easy. Stuart Stevens, a GOP strategist who used to handle media for President Bush, says Republicans should face up to the reality of a long war for high stakes.

Mr. STUART STEVENS (GOP strategist): A great hand wringing over Iraq should be avoided. And I think that that's one of the roles that the president has played. I think that we can acknowledge two somewhat contradictory notions. One, that the war in Iraq is a human tragedy. The people are dying. It's terrible.

On the other hand, that it is better than the alternative and that we have to get through this difficult period and that there will be positive gain on the other side. So I think sort of a keeping of the faith there, which is common in any war.

SIEGEL: Two years ago, Republicans ran on President Bush's insistence that the war in Iraq is a phase of a larger war on terror, a struggle that was epitomized by 9/11. Many Democrats said the two conflicts were distinct and separable. Well, this year a lot of Republicans said that, too. Former RNC chair Ed Gillespie says that's a question now facing his fellow Republicans.

Mr. GILLESPIE: Well this is a threshold question. Is Iraq central to winning the war on terror or is it a distraction from winning the war on terror? And, you know, the voters in 2002, I think, saw it as linked and essential, and in 2006 many saw it as not. And, you know, we've got to hash through this answer over the course of the next two years.

SIEGEL: And there are other issues on which Republicans don't find easy agreement. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback - a born-again Christian - is pro-life and against embryonic stem cell research. He says yes, the GOP has to be for responsible government and for lower taxes.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): And I think we have to be as in love with life as we are with tax cuts. I think we have to say to the public we believe life begins at conception, we're going to stand and fight for that. We believe the culture needs to be renewed and the family rebuilt, and we're going to stand for those issues.

SIEGEL: So could the Republicans nominate a pro-choice candidate for president?

Senator BROWNBACK: I don't think so. It is a pro-life dominated party with a pro-choice wing.

SIEGEL: Republican Congressman Mike Castle of Delaware is part of that pro-choice wing. Castle says for Republicans to reach independent voters in this part of the country, they'll have to think about ideas far outside conservative orthodoxy.

Representative MIKE CASTLE (Republican, Delaware): Republicans did very well, I think, when we doubled the funding for health care research under Newt Gingrich. And I think we need to get back to that. I happen to be the sponsor of embryonic stem cell research and really honestly believe that we need to move forward in that direction, as well other areas.

But I think we also need to reach in terms of being expansive with respect to the governmental helped health care programs. And at some point the whole concept of going to a governmentally supported health care system is not something that I think Republicans are ready to embrace. But to suggest that we're not going aim in that direction in the next 10 years would also be wrong.

SIEGEL: A party that includes both Mike Castle and Sam Brownback is like a barracks full of strange bedfellows. But nothing overcomes a political difference so well as the common exercise of power. Republicans in Congress have just lost a lot of power, but as former national chair Ed Gillespie says, defeat is not forever.

Mr. GILLESPIE: As I said after the 2004 election repeatedly, you know, the day after the election when people were talking about Republican preeminence, the fact is the Democratic Party is one of the greatest political parties in the history of the world. So too is the Republican Party. And we are out right now of the House and the Senate, but we will be back. I can't tell you exactly when, but the public likes the two party system, and the pendulum swings.

SIEGEL: And some day soon, Ed Gillespie hopes, the pendulum will swing back to the GOP.

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