Conservatively Speaking, Things Look Bad

President Bush's polls ratings are low. The public is weary of the war in Iraq. And Republicans in Congress have lost patience with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Has the conservative movement run its course?

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Democrats have now been in power in Congress for 100 days, and both houses have passed measures protesting the president's conduct of the war in Iraq. In those first 100 days, we've also heard conservative Republicans increasingly critical of the president. The number of people who say they are Republican or leaning Republican is down, down to 36 percent in Pew Research Center polls.

NPR's Linda Wertheimer looks at what this means for conservatives and the Republican Party.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Conservative Republicans in Congress have no illusions about how bad this last election was for them. Basically, those who had safe seats survived, and many others did not. Marilyn Musgrave represents the eastern side of Colorado, a state that has lately been electing more Democrats.

Representative MARILYN MUSGRAVE (Republican, Colorado): So it was a very low point for Republicans, the worst time since Watergate, and you really do a lot of soul-searching when you take a beating like that. When we came together, when our conference came together to talk about it, as we talked and we brought in other people to help us figure out what went wrong, we came away from that learning that what had happened to the Republicans is we've lost our brand.

WERTHEIMER: Republicans were not acting like Republicans. They were allowing deficits to build up, Musgrave says spending like Democrats. And of course, the war was a factor, but polls suggest it may be more serious than that. Andy Kohut, who directs the Pew Center for the People and the Press, has looked at long-term polling and finds that sentiment has been slowly growing for a change of direction.

Mr. ANDY KOHUT (Director, Pew Center for the People and the Press): We have short-term reactions to Bush, but we also have some of these long-term cycles of history trends going on with respect to views about income inequality or the social safety net and so on.

WERTHEIMER: The most important of those cyclical trends - what would you say they are?

Mr. KOHUT: I think it's support for the social safety net, and that may play itself out in a renewed call for insuring the uninsured with respect to health care. Now, the thrust of this polling is not that everything has changed, but that the balance has shifted in the other direction.

WERTHEIMER: If voters are interested in things like another look at health care, where does that leave the conservative core of the Republican Party? Vin Weber is a former Republican congressman and a party strategist who agrees that the brand Republican has been seriously damaged.

Mr. VIN WEBER (Former Republican Congressman, Minnesota): The question that I hear Republicans talking about is, do we need to change the brand, or do we simply need to refurbish? And I simply argue for the Republican Party to try to become something different in the next election, different than it has been for generations, is just about an impossible task. You'll shatter the Republican base and not replace it with anything or not be sure of replacing it.

WERTHEIMER: Rebuilding, block by block, slowly re-convincing voters - his word - that the GOP once again stands for fiscal responsibility, low taxes and a strong military: that's the way to go, Weber says. He thinks an unpopular war and an unpopular president are dragging the party down but that both effects may be transitory.

Matthew Continetti, associate editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, has a harsher view. He says the Congress under Republicans accomplished very little of significance over its 12 years and will be mostly remembered for having tried to impeach a popular president and having been the lackey of an unpopular one. He says Republicans need to respond to a change of direction among voters with new policies.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Associate Editor, The Weekly Standard): Policies that would provide some relief to people trying to raise a family and working at the same time and also encourage more children, a natalist approach to politics. These types of policies, I hope, will be adopted by some of the presidential candidates in the near term.

WERTHEIMER: You're suggesting childcare, emphasis on health care, prenatal care - all those kinds of programs sounds like Democrats.

Mr. CONTINETTI: It does sound like Democrats. You know, Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chairman, he says we cannot cede these issues to the Democratic Party. We need to have our own solutions.

WERTHEIMER: Refurbishing or retooling would presumably take time, perhaps more time than Republicans have, but all the people we've just heard from are also hoping for help from the Democrats. If the Democrats overreach, if the party's liberals go too far, that may improve GOP standing. And although Congresswoman Musgrave clearly does not relish being in the minority, speaking out from the minority may help.

Rep. MUSGRAVE: I'm confident if we are hypocritical, if we say we're for small government, and we don't act like that, then we're going to have consequences, but I'm also confident if we will be true to our principles, that the pendulum will swing back.

WERTHEIMER: And even if it doesn't, Vin Weber points out that conservatives in this country have, over the past 30 years, changed attitudes about many things. So even if voters do begin to look at social programs, the safety net, health care reform, other so-called progressive measures, it will not be a replay of the new deal.

Mr. WEBER: Let's say that there is a swing in the pendulum taking place back toward the more progressive side of politics, which I think is very possible, but it swings from a different starting point than it might have 30 or 40 years ago; the assumption of a market-based economy, for instance, the assumption that top-down, centralized planning and control and bureaucratic structure are unpopular and not workable - there's a whole set of things that the conservative movement has won the argument on.

The constraints on the Democrats, if they should win the next election, or on the Democrats now in the Congress, are quite different than they would've been 30 or 40 years ago when some of these issues were not settled in the public's mind.

WERTHEIMER: Then Weber and the others also pointed that despite the party's current unpopularity, leading Republican presidential candidates are actually leading in head-to-head match-ups with the Democrats. And in presidential elections, individual personalities often matter more than parties. Here's Matt Continetti of the Weekly Standard.

Mr. CONTINETTI: I think the one thing that Republicans are most happy about is that President Bush nor Dick Cheney will be on the ticket in 2008. And so there's hope among conservatives and among Republicans that they'll be able to find a new standard bearer who'd be able to speak not only to conservative voters but also to the public at large. And they're relieved that President Bush will be going back to Texas, possibly as relieved as Democrats will be.

WERTHEIMER: And that's a statement it's hard to imagine anyone making two years ago.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Washington.

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