Thomas Fitzgerald: The GOP's inner struggle

Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum , Rep. Michele Bachmann, and others were at Monday's GOP debate.
Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum , Rep. Michele Bachmann, and others were at Monday's GOP debate. (JIM COLE / Associated Press)

Once again, it's ideological purity, win or lose, or compromise to win.

Posted: June 19, 2011

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. - When Terry Pfaff planted his feet and challenged the seven Republican presidential candidates on the debate stage last week, it evoked Norman Rockwell's famous Freedom of Speech painting, the one of the guy in a leather bomber jacket and blue plaid shirt speaking his mind at a New England town meeting.

"I am not a libertarian Republican. I'm not a tea party Republican. I'm just a mainstream Republican," said Pfaff, picked to ask a question at Monday's CNN debate. "We need both the independents and the mainstream Republicans to win in November. How can you convince me and assure me that you'll bring a balance? . . . You have to have a balanced approach to governing to solve our serious problems."

It's an old story: the tension in the GOP coalition between those who believe in compromising to win and those who are more interested in conservative ideological purity, win or lose. It goes back to the 1964 Goldwater vs. Rockefeller fight, won by the insurgent right, and even further back to Taft vs. Eisenhower in 1952, won by the moderate establishment, or "squishes."

In the last two decades, the GOP has been defined by the forceful voices of the religious right and, more recently, by the tea party, with its message that government must slash taxes, spending, and regulation to recapture an American dream slipping away. Those two factions have given the party much of its grassroots energy, and won Republicans a majority last fall in the House.

But as the race for the 2012 nomination comes into focus, many Republicans are deciding it's important to be pragmatic, to pick someone capable of being elected president, rather than a flame-thrower destined to be a noble loser.

Answering Pfaff, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum spoke of how he built coalitions among GOP factions and across the aisle to get welfare reform passed in the 1990s. Even Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the tea party avatar, said, "We need everybody to come together."

A CNN/Gallup poll of likely Republican voters, released Monday, picked up this shift: 50 percent said it was more important to choose a nominee capable of defeating President Obama than one who agreed with them on a checklist of major issues. Forty-four percent said being right on the issues was more crucial.

Heading into 2008, only four in 10 Republican voters told Gallup electability was the more important characteristic.

The debate contenders seemed to recognize the subtle shift. Sure, there were nods to the government-is-useless philosophy, a passing fondness for states' rights, and a passion for tax cuts. But nobody called Obama a socialist, gave a dog whistle to the "birthers," or bashed gays.

Instead, the focus was on the economy. After all, unemployment has risen to 9.1 percent; the Dow only just snapped six weeks of losses; and there are growing fears of a second recession.

Suddenly, Obama looked fragile again after an uptick in the polls, and the possibility of a GOP president seemed more real. That has a way of concentrating the strategic mind.

"Candidates who may run too far to the right in order to be successful in the Republican primary could be a detriment in the general election," Corey R. Lewandowski, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said during a forum at St. Anselm College.

"I'm a self-described tea party guy, but I know that if we choose as our nominee a candidate who is unelectable, the country will have four more years of higher spending, taxes, and more regulation," he said.

Charles M. Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, argued the opposite view, that whoever wins the GOP race will become electable for having had to unite the factions of the party to win. More important, he said, the majority of the country is with the Republicans on the economy.

Bernie Campbell, a history teacher from Salem, N.H., said he is a social conservative, but thinks that stopping same-sex marriage and trying to outlaw abortion are "minor issues compared to what we're facing" with the crushing national debt. Still, he thinks the tea party has done the GOP no favors.

"They're ratcheting the rhetoric too high, shrieking and screaming when we need to talk quietly and solve problems," Campbell, 37, said.

Granted, New Hampshire is what Campbell called a "firebreak" among early-voting states - with a broader electorate of old-fashioned Yankee moderate Republicans and independents. Voters elsewhere may well have a more conservative definition of electability.

To lighting salesman Larry Zellner, 56, of Exeter, eating a breakfast of eggs and raisin toast at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester before going out to fight to keep an account, that means a Republican who can win and fix the economy.

"I'm going to look toward who is strongest to mount an effective campaign against the president," he said.


Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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