Conservatives Take A Hard Look At Themselves Regardless of who wins the election, the question will remain: What's next for conservatives? And who should lead the charge?
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Conservatives Take A Hard Look At Themselves

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Conservatives Take A Hard Look At Themselves

Conservatives Take A Hard Look At Themselves

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Regardless of who wins the election in November, the question is going to remain what's next for American conservatives who have dominated so much of the political landscape over the past few years and who might lead that charge. We're joined now by NPR news analyst Juan Williams who's at member station WWNO in New Orleans. Juan, thanks for being with us.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And out at the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California, is Reihan Salam who writes the "Grand New Party" column on Mr. Salam, thank you so much for getting up early.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Columnist, Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And it seems to me you earn the honors of going first. I'm touched by your recent writings. You have great affection for Senator John McCain, but you say that his campaign - I'll use your phrase here - "has been extremely painful to watch," while Senator Obama has run a brilliant campaign. Although you say you can't bring yourself to vote for him. Is it your impression a lot of conservatives find themselves torn that way?

Mr. SALAM: Absolutely. I'm struck by the number of conservatives I know who are finding it very hard to pull the lever for John McCain at this point despite the fact that he has a very long record of supporting issues that conservatives care about. But you know, we're in the final stretch right now, and it's possible that John McCain could still, you know, pull this one out of his hat. But the kind of administration he'd have to run is going to be very different from what his campaign is looking like right now. So I think that that contradiction is something that is frustrating.

SIMON: Juan Williams, with the advantage of the knowledge you have on historical perspective, is this in any sense a faceoff between - just to use some catchphrases here - Main Street conservatives and Wall Street conservatives, the old eastern seaboard conservatives and heartland conservatives. You know how people use those labels.

WILLIAMS: Oh, sure. And you know, I mean, there's a real populist divide right now, I think, inside the party. And Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee, governor of Alaska, I think represents that wing. And they are really people who are tied in to the culture wars arguments. And they tend to represent as demographics, Scott, an older, white Republican Party at a time when all the growth in terms of the American electorate is among young people, is among minorities. That's the growing face of American voters.

So if you're looking at it from a historical perspective on the Republican side, you could go back to, let's say, Richard Nixon's silent majority, law and order, come forward to Ronald Reagan picking up on some of the Barry Goldwater themes, more of a Southern states strategy for the GOP, more outreach to the suburbs in particular around the big cities, the Reagan Democrats, as you recall, and then going after some of the culture wars issues, especially abortion.

And then you come into the Bush era; the first Bush, of course, an extension of Reagan, but the second Bush much more about axis of evil, a strong stand on the war. And now we're into an era where it's unclear what the next phase is for the Republican Party.

SIMON: Mr. Salam, wasn't John McCain, though, in many ways the - at least some people considered him the perfect candidate to bridge that gap. He was an independent. He had a history of reform. He was from the West. He seemed to be in nobody's pocket. He'd had a history of winning votes from young people for that matter.

Mr. SALAM: Absolutely. There were some structural problems here. If you look at the John McCain who really was a thorn in George Bush's side early in George W. Bush's first presidential term, you saw a candidate who really got where the American public was moving. You know, American voters in the late '70s and '80s cared a lot about federal income taxes. But the voters of the, you know, early 2000s cared a lot about their health insurance premiums. They cared a lot about the rising cost of living. And John McCain talked about a patient's bill of rights. He talked about a whole slew of domestic issues that connected with the voters of today rather than the voters of 25 years ago.

But then to run in a Republican primary in 2008, he had to really discipline himself. He had to present himself, you know, frankly as a kind of Bushbot who was a lot more disciplined in terms of conservative messaging. And that was actually a problem. The old McCain could have run a very effective campaign, could have distanced himself from this president. This McCain had a much harder time because of these structural constraints.

SIMON: Juan, let me ask you in the minute we have left, regardless of how - of who wins this election, is this a time for - afterwards, are conservatives going to regroup? Is there going to be some kind of battle between some of the factions we're talking about?

WILLIAMS: Oh, without a doubt because what they have a sense of is the soul of the party is up for grabs right now. If you think about, let's say, the evangelicals, Scott, you know, and the turn towards larger issues - everything from poverty to disease internationally, social opportunity - that's a new look. And that's an essential part of the Republican base whatever its future might be. I think a lot of it's going to have to be reaction to, let's say, whatever the Democrats do as overreach.

They want to make sure that they come back to the idea of being the party that's, you know, strong on taxes. They're going to have a hard time, but they are going to try to be the party that says, we're going to limit government spending. That has to be part of it. And of course reaction to the Larry Craigs, Duke Cunninghams to say, you know what, we can manage and put America back on the firm family track. That has to be the core message from the party.

SIMON: Juan Williams, thanks very much for being with us, and Reihan Salam, editor at the Atlantic and columnist for And this is NPR News.

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