Haley Barbour makes the case for GOP compromise

Sarah Palin greets Phil Robertson from the television show "Duck Dynasty" after helping to introduce him at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans on Thursday. Several thousand Republicans gathered for the event. (Bill Haber/AP)

NEW ORLEANS -- The most heated tea party vs. establishment primary in the 2014 election is playing out just an hour to the east, but judging by the first two days of the Republican Leadership Conference here, you wouldn't know that the GOP remains locked in an intense fight between the tea party and the establishment.

While conferences like this tend to devolve into intra-party sniping -- and that was certainly the case two months ago at the Conservative Political Action Conference -- the GOP has largely played nice with itself at this (notably smaller) presidential cattle call.

So far, there has been little criticism of the party's less-pure conservatives, and the race between Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel hasn't really been mentioned -- at least on-stage.

Instead, GOP leaders have been preaching a message of unity and pragmatism, urging their fellow Republicans to focus on winning in 2014 rather than making sure their candidates check all the boxes.

That charge has long been led by the likes of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour -- a former national party chairman who devoted his entire speech Friday to making sure the GOP wins rather than purges -- and current RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who spoke Thursday about the party executing the mechanics of winning national campaigns.

Barbour made a strong case for his party not splintering into factions and argued that incremental progress toward conservative goals is a worthy cause.

"Reagan compromised on everything," he said.

But that message has also been carried by some less-likely messengers, including Donald Trump -- he of the birther movement -- and lesser-known speakers such as party-switching Louisiana state Sen. Elbert Guillory.

In a news conference here, Trump scoffed at a tea party candidate in the Louisiana Senate race who approached him about an endorsement, saying the GOP needs to nominate conservatives who can win and not invest time and energy in pure conservatives who are polling far behind.

"The Republicans have to win," Trump said. "I’m a very conservative person, but Republicans have to win.”

Guillory, who emerged as a YouTube celebrity thanks to a video describing his party switch last year, said he was surprised that Republicans were so intent on hashing out their differences. Guillory, who is black, likened it to African Americans fighting over who is "blacker."

"I found that it’s not who is blacker than who, it’s who’s redder than who," Guillory said, listing off the various hyphenated GOP factions. "We have to get rid of the hyphens. We have to be Republicans.”

Whether this kumbaya attitude will continue through the final day of the conference on Saturday, of course, is an open question. The day's agenda includes notable tea party agitator Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has led the charge for conservative purity in the Senate, as well as a trio of House Republicans known for stirring the pot: Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.). Former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who has taken to criticizing moderate Republicans, is also slated to speak.

It's also worth noting that such appeals for party unity have been met with less-than-enthusiastic responses. At conferences like these, red meat is much more rousing than calling for inclusion and compromise.

But for a party whose gatherings have long been marked by attacks on Republicans rather than Democrats, it's a notable change -- so far.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.



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