GOP Struggles To Define Its Message for 2006 Elections

By Dan Balz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 20, 2006

Republican efforts to craft a policy and political agenda to carry the party into the midterm elections have stumbled repeatedly as GOP leaders face widespread disaffection and disagreement within the ranks.

Anxiety over President Bush's Iraq policy, internal clashes over such divisive issues as immigration, and rising complaints that the party has abandoned conservative principles on spending restraint have all hobbled the effort to devise an election-year message, said several lawmakers involved in the effort.

While it is a Republican refrain that Democrats criticize Bush but have no positive vision, for now the governing party also has no national platform around which lawmakers are prepared to rally.

Every effort so far to produce such a platform has stumbled.

In January, Bush laid out a modest menu of ideas on health care and energy independence, but Congress has made little movement on them. Senior White House officials consulted with lawmakers earlier this year about jointly crafting an agenda that would allow Bush and Republicans in Congress -- both suffering from depressed public approval ratings -- to get off the defensive. A Republican familiar with the process said these discussions did not result in a consensus.

New House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has been wrestling with the same problem, so far without success.

The struggles reflect philosophical differences among competing factions within the party, but they also underscore the political consequences of holding power. Republicans insist they remain united around core principles of smaller government, lower taxes and a strong national defense, but can no longer agree on how to implement that philosophy and are squabbling over their delivery on those commitments.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said the root of the problem is a failure of Washington Republicans to stick to principles, saying that his party risks losing power because it has done "a pretty poor job" of executing its small-government philosophy. "Republicans just need to take stock, go back and realize that the American people elected them because of their principles, and when you do not adhere to those principles, the American people are just as likely to turn you out and choose someone else."

Lately, the drift Perry described has been on glaring display almost daily. A week ago, Republican speakers at a GOP gathering in Memphis complained about the breakdown in fiscal discipline. A few days later, lawmakers in Washington raised the federal debt ceiling by an additional $781 billion and voted to authorize more than $100 billion in new spending.

Republicans are engaged in a face-off in Congress over two sharply different views of how to deal with illegal immigration -- with no compromise in sight. The split between the White House and congressional Republicans over the Dubai port deal underscores cracks in the party's national security consensus and has given Democrats an opening to challenge the GOP on what has long been a core strength. Republicans do remain united behind Bush's Iraq policy, albeit nervously, with widespread concern that a violent and open-ended commitment in that nation will be a liability in November.

The president once clearly set the Republican agenda, and when his approval ratings were higher, congressional Republicans followed his lead. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that model hit a wall last year when the president's centerpiece proposal to restructure Social Security "turned out to be not doable."

This year, Bush came back to Congress with a scaled-back agenda -- including tax incentives to expand health coverage and some money to study using wood chips and switch grass as alternative energy sources -- that Blunt said "is not as easily defined." And in Bush's weakened state, his proposals command less allegiance. "It's always the challenge of a second-term administration to keep the agenda fresh, to keep moving with the same intensity they had in the first term," Blunt said. "Combine that with less popularity, and people are much slower to salute the flag."

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