A poll of 1,015 conservative activists shows that 77 percent are either seriously disappointed with Republican Congressional leaders or want them totally replaced.The poll/survey also found that 54 percent of conservatives feel so abandoned by the current crop of Congressional leaders and President Bush that they plan to reduce their contributions and/or grassroots work for GOP candidates in the coming election. And 70 percent would support a principled conservative challenger running against an established incumbent Republican in a GOP primary.
Conservatives, which form the GOP's base, provided most of the volunteers and money to elect a Republican-controlled House and Senate — and wound up with bigger government as a result. Now more than half of these committed activists say they'll reduce or end their involvement in the upcoming elections — which could prove devastating for the GOP.
The GOP-controlled Congress, 73 percent gave it a D or F on "controlling government spending;" 73 percent gave it a D or F on "reducing Undocumented immigration;" and 54 percent gave it an "overall grade" of D or F.Sixty-three percent gave Bush a D or F on controlling government spending.
The rebellion of conservative House Republicans that greatly complicated efforts to enact the financial industry “rescue” (or “bailout”) plan came in the midst of one of the most fiercely contested national elections in years, as Republicans fight to stave off a Democratic takeover of the White House and big gains that would reinforce the Democrats’ current majorities in the House and the Senate.
But the rebels on the Republican right were looking beyond this election day and at the future direction of their party when they defied President Bush, their own congressional leaders and Arizona Sen. John McCain , the party’s presidential nominee, who initially drew attention to the House conservatives’ concerns when he jumped into the bailout negotiations a couple of weeks back but ultimately supported the measure and worked to persuade Republican colleagues to vote for it.
The Battle of the Bailout may ultimately be viewed as the first major skirmish in the fight for control of the GOP whose “brand” has been badly damaged by the collapse of support for Bush during his second term as president and by the foibles that have made the Republicans in Congress at least as unpopular as Bush. This fight will occur even if McCain is somehow able to reverse his slide in the presidential race polls and pull out what would now be regarded as an upset victory over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama , the Democratic nominee.
In fact, the election of McCain — whose campaign leans heavily on the handful of issues on which he disagrees with the conservative wing of his own party — would likely complicate the efforts by the Republican Party to define itself and revive its overall fortunes.
This was highlighted on Tuesday when McCain, during a televised debate with Obama, sprung a proposal to have the federal government buy up and renegotiate failing mortgages.
While McCain has heavily promoted his proposal as proof that he is on the side of beleaguered homeowners, many conservatives in his Republican base have expressed outrage over what they view as an even bigger federal intervention into the private sector that will put taxpayers’ dollars at even greater risk and hold harmless banks and other firms whose actions helped send the economy into a tailspin.
After the Republicans lost control of Congress in the 2006 elections, a number of observers said the party needed to temper the image of unbridled conservative partisanship that many voters attributed to the party and show that its members could work with the Democrats to forge compromises on issues of major public concern.
But members of the conservative activist wing of Republican lawmakers see it otherwise. Under the banner of the Republican Study Committee (RSC) — which claims membership of more than 110 of the 199 Republicans who currently hold U.S. House seats — these Republicans claim their party’s fortunes have fallen because it is not conservative enough.
The RSC, headed by figures such as Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling , the current chairman, and past chairman Mike Pence of Indiana, argues that “big government conservatism” practiced by Bush and Republican leaders in Congress has robbed the party of its identity and has prompted voters to see the GOP as little different from the Democratic Party.
They point to the political horse-trading under the past House leadership of now-departed Republicans such as Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Tom DeLay of Texas that contributed to the explosive growth in federal spending “earmarks;” the outright corruption scandals that played big roles in the Republican downfall in 2006; and the creation under Bush of the No Child Left Behind education law and the prescription drug benefit program under Medicare, which many conservatives see as vast expansions of federal spending and intrusion.
If the RSC crowd’s demands that the Republican Party return to its “core principles” draw public support, they could lead to a reinvigoration of the GOP’s prospects in coming elections. If they are wrong, and the Democrats’ advances are sustained by a center-left shift among American voters, the conservative activists’ efforts to grab the party reins could consign it to a long wander in the minority-party wilderness.
The sharp decline in Bush’s job approval ratings since his re-election in 2004 have liberated party conservatives to be much more vocal with their criticisms.
Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first presidential press secretary, made an unintentionally funny comment in the wake of the House defeat of the original version of the House bailout bill, when he said there was so much opposition to the plan from so many different ideological directions that it would have failed even if Bush’s job approval ratings had been 70 percent, instead of the mid-to-high 20s where they have come to rest.
The fact is that during Bush’s first term, when his job approval ratings were very high, congressional Republicans followed him just about everywhere, resulting in record-high presidential support and party unity scores among GOP lawmakers in Congressional Quarterly’s vote studies.
House Republicans voted 183-33 in favor of No Child Left Behind in 2001. The House version of the prescription drug benefit legislation that passed the House by one vote in 2003 was favored by 207 Republicans and opposed by just 19 (most Democrats opposed it because they said it provided to few benefits to consumers and too many for big drug companies). And virtually all Republicans provided unquestioning support to Bush’s 2002 request for authorization to use military force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which passed with 215 Republican “yeas” and six “nays” in the House.
Nonetheless, criticism of Bush from the right had already rising sharply when it reached a crescendo over the past month. The trigger was the president’s pronouncement that flawed mortgage-lending practices had caused such a massive crisis in the nation’s financial industry that it could only be stanched by giving the Treasury Department authorization to buy up to $700 billion in bad loans that threatened to freeze the nation’s credit markets and precipitate a deep recession.
After years of Bush and fellow Republicans preaching the glories of free-market economics, many conservatives could not swallow the huge proposed government intervention, even in the face of stern warnings that the nation might be facing the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression.
They created a bloc of opposition to the bailout bill, helping to prevent the passage of the original version and still comprising a majority of House Republicans in voting against the modified version, crafted in the Senate, that ultimately passed.
The contrast between efforts by McCain and congressional conservatives on the bailout bill underscore their difficult relationship — and suggest the difficulty McCain would have maintaining party unity if he were to follow his oft-repeated promise that he would reach across party lines to address key issues such as the economy, energy development, health care, education and global climate change.
McCain’s first reactions to the economic crisis perplexed party conservatives. After first pronouncing that the fundamentals of the economy are sound, McCain began channeling William Jennings Bryan+
, the Democratic populist of a century ago, as he blamed the mess on Wall Street “greed” and “corruption.”
McCain briefly gained praise from some conservatives after he broke off from the campaign trail, returned to Washington and advocated on behalf of House Republicans who complained their more market-oriented proposals to remedy the financial industry’s morass were being ignored by leaders of both parties. But he then disappointed conservatives again by voting for the Senate’s modified version of the bailout bill and working the phones to persuade Republicans to vote for it.
The epilogue, in which McCain has produced a federal mortgage buy-out plan that has its origins in liberal circles of the Democratic Party, just serves as a reminder to conservative activists of why so many of them were skeptical of McCain’s bid for president in the first place.
Although — as Obama points out almost every day — McCain has voted with Bush and fellow Senate Republicans most of the time, he has taken outspoken positions against party orthodoxy on issues such as global warming and campaign finance regulation. These actions, which provide the foundations for McCain’s claims that he is a “maverick” who would “shake up Washington” as president, are seen by some on the Republican right as evidence that they cannot trust him to govern as a conservative.
It will be hard to find a Republican member of Congress who would renounce his support for McCain in the presidential campaign. Who among them, after all, would want to be held responsible by other Republicans for helping elect Obama as president? And some conservatives, to find solace, have virtually flipped the Republican ticket, focusing on the much harder ideological line conveyed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin , the party’s vice presidential nominee.
But you can count on these newly mobilized conservatives to make a bid to put their purist stamp on the Republican Party in the years going forward, regardless of whether McCain wins or loses.