Sen. Ensign: Economy Hurt GOP Candidates

It's been a tough election cycle for Republicans. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He tells Steve Inskeep that Republicans have to regroup and get back to core principles like fiscal responsibility and limited government. Ensign says over the past couple of years, Republicans in Congress have been spending money almost as fast as Democrats.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This may be the feeling a famous sportscaster called the agony of defeat.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Republican Senator John Ensign spent last night in Washington, D.C. So he was able to listen as thousands of people roamed the streets.

MONTAGNE: People cheered and shouted as Barack Obama won the White House. And in some neighborhoods, a continuous roar went on for hours.

INSKEEP: Senator Ensign led the campaign for his fellow Republican senators, and his party lost at least five Senate seats last night. People were still celebrating outside when Senator Ensign came to the phone to talk about what happens now.

What does it mean that your party has been turned aside in two straight elections now?

Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): Well, there's no question, we had a very tough cycle two years ago. And you're hearing the noise outside, there's people celebrating all over. The financial crisis really was a severe body blow to us, and a lot of the American people still think the Republicans are in control of the House and the Senate and the White House. And so when the financial crisis hit, they blamed Republicans.

INSKEEP: Four years ago, Democrats were in about the same position you are in now, looked around, and did see a couple of bright spots. And one was that they'd elected a senator from Colorado, and the other was that they'd elected a senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Do you look around the results from 2008 and see anything that points to the future of the Republican Party?

Senator ENSIGN: Well, I think that as a party we need to regroup. It's time that we get back to some core principles that united Republicans in the past. And you know, one of those core principles was the idea that we believed in fiscal responsibility and limited government. For the last several years, the Republicans in the Congress have been spending money almost as fast as the Democrats. And that's one of the things that united Republicans, I always believed. We disagreed on some social issues, on, you know, various other issues along the road, but what we agreed on was letting people keep more of their money - in other words, keeping taxes low - was being fiscally responsible, especially to future generations.

INSKEEP: You leave me with a couple of things to follow up on. Is there, in fact, a race that you look at or a candidate that you look at that points to that refocusing of the Republican party you're talking about?

Senator ENSIGN: I think that this year Republicans ran their own races across the country and - because Senator McCain, obviously, was a different type of, you know, a typical Republican. But as a party, we need to start unifying and tell the American people why we are different. We need to work with the Democrats and with President Obama. But we need to, as Republicans, figure out what we stand for as a party and start communicating that better to the American people.

INSKEEP: Do Republicans need to change their approach in the Senate when you talk about working with the new larger majorities and working with the president-elect? Do you need to behave in a different way?

Senator ENSIGN: I think that Republicans, or anybody who is in office, should look to - if a Democrat has an idea, if it's a good idea, let's get behind it. Don't just be against it because a Democrat has an idea and you happen to be a Republican, or vice versa. We need to start putting the country before we put our party.

INSKEEP: Granting that you're hoping for more bipartisanship, do you think you will still have the power to stop measures which you strongly object to?

Senator ENSIGN: Yeah. When we agree with the Democrats, I want to work with them. When we disagree with them, I don't know whether we'll have the votes, but we certainly have to give it everything that we can. They'll be able to push a lot of their agenda forward, you know. And I'm going to look for areas that, you know, we can support them if they're doing what I believe is right. But if they're doing things that I'm against, then I'm going to oppose them with every ounce in my body.

INSKEEP: Senator John Ensign of Nevada is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Senator, thanks very much for your time.

Senator ENSIGN: Thank you.

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