For Republicans, a House (And Senate) Divided
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page D01
Republicans are clawing at each other like rabid bobcats, and, dare we say, Democrats.
House GOP leaders say they feel trampled by the White House and betrayed by the GOP-led Senate over the budget. Senate hard-liners are sick of the hand-wringing over Abu Ghraib and wish the administration would quit apologizing. Sen. Trent Lott is still bitter at Karl Rove, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell are beyond couples counseling, as are the entire State and Defense departments. GOP-chaired committees are slapping around Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, Sen. Chuck Hagel is calling the president "particularly isolated," and Sen. John McCain is brawling with House Speaker Denny Hastert.
Besides that, it's all cake and ice cream under the Big Tent.
The famously fractured Democrats are savoring the discord from an unfamiliar perspective -- a state of cohesion. "The Republicans redcoats and their precision army have turned into a circular firing squad," says Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. Her party is unified -- or acting unified -- behind its presumed presidential candidate, John Kerry. They are forgiving his flaws and missteps in deference to their greater electoral hopes. At least for now.
On Wednesday, when Kerry appeared to contradict an earlier statement and said he might nominate anti-abortion judges -- a sacrilege to many of his abortion rights supporters -- no one at NARAL Pro-Choice America or Planned Parenthood complained too loudly. On the same day, when Kerry met with Ralph Nader and apparently distanced himself from the pro-corporate policies of the Clinton administration, moderate Democratic groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council stayed quiet.
In other words, everyone exhibited classic Republican behavior. They showed a spirit of decorum that was once embodied by Ronald Reagan's "11th Commandment," which stated, "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."
Recent days, however, have brought a free-for-all of GOP violations to their commandment. It got to a point where Bush visited Capitol Hill on Thursday for an intervention. But the president isn't immune. His poll numbers are dipping, as is support for his increasingly dicey foray into Iraq. Conservative pundits George Will and Robert Novak, among others, have sharply criticized Bush's spending, growing deficit and the mounting casualties abroad. Novak, in a column this week, cited a poll in which 20 percent of Republicans said they are not committed to voting for Bush.
In a recent meeting of the House GOP caucus, Hastert, usually a team player, criticized the administration and, according to an account in the newspaper the Hill, the attendees broke into applause. On Wednesday, Hastert questioned McCain's GOP bona fides after the Arizona senator criticized Republicans for refusing to sacrifice their tax cutting and spending agendas in wartime. Hastert added that to understand sacrifice, the former POW "ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and Bethesda [Naval Hospital]. There's the sacrifice in this country."
McCain -- perhaps the most popular Republican legislator in the country, except among Republican legislators -- got the last word. "I fondly remember a time when real Republicans stood for fiscal responsibility," he said.
"It's extremely difficult to govern when you control all three branches of government," says Hastert spokesman John Feehery, a burden of which Democrats would happily relieve them. Feehery and other Hill Republicans say that intraparty tension will inevitably bubble up amid adversity. But many political analysts say the recent infighting exceeds the usual steam-letting.
"Panic is too strong a word," says independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "But when you're the governing party and you have the majority of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track, you're certainly going to have self-doubt."
Republicans have differed on many issues over the last three years, says William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard. But there has always been a sense that the Bush people knew what they are doing, that they are in charge.
"What is worrisome today is the sense of drift and almost paralysis," says Kristol. "There's a difference between disagreeing with a particular decision and the idea that the wheels might be falling off."
Kristol adds that he doesn't think the wheels are falling off quite yet. "But they're certainly looser than one would like."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company