The Great Republican Rebranding

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Saturday, May 6, 2006

Sen. Rick Santorum wanted to talk.

His purpose, he said over breakfast earlier this week in the Senate dining room, was to "tell the other side of the story" about his record, which his foes use to cast him as -- these are his words -- "a mean-spirited, hard-right country club Republican."

Santorum wanted to describe the work he had done on "nontraditional Republican issues," including faith-based initiatives to help the poor, his work with Bono to expand funding to fight AIDS in Africa and his efforts to secure federal money for Pennsylvania's inner cities.

Poverty is a big deal to him, Santorum explained, because "if you want me to be honest, I'm a Catholic." He added: "How many times did the nuns beat into your brains: the poor, the poor, the poor, the poor?"

The poor, the poor, the poor, the poor are not typical words in a Republican's political litany, and that is the point. Santorum has been running behind for months in his reelection struggle against the popular Democratic state treasurer, Robert Casey Jr. If Santorum doesn't change his image, he loses.

Santorum is nothing if not shrewd. Running with the 1994 conservative tide, he won his seat from then-incumbent Harris Wofford after characterizing AmeriCorps, the national service initiative and a Wofford legislative monument, as a program "for hippie kids to stand around a campfire and sing 'Kumbaya' at taxpayers' expense." (Santorum later became an AmeriCorps supporter.) With the tide running the other way 12 years later, Santorum is eager to cast himself as a champion of social justice.

Santorum is not alone. All over the country, Republicans are engaged in a massive effort at rebranding, reframing and, in some cases, wholesale retreat from past positions. The surest sign that the nation is in the middle of an ideological transition is that Republicans don't want to sound like -- well, Republicans.

Thus are those who once derided Al Gore's environmentalism now painting themselves in very bright shades of green. Last month Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) took a drive in a hydrogen-powered car to show how much he cares about conservation and the planet.

Members of Congress who once eagerly showered tax breaks on the energy companies now want you to know they're tough on Big Oil. Last month House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) urged federal agencies to investigate possible price gouging by the petroleum giants.

Of course, turning on a dime is not that easy, and the GOP leaders -- under pressure from their business allies -- have been all over the lot on changes in accounting rules that would have levied higher taxes on the energy companies. For the moment, they seem to have dumped the idea.

And the issue of stem cell research is causing a spate of conservative headaches, most notably for Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who is in a reelection battle with the Democratic state auditor, Claire McCaskill.

Earlier this year Talent dropped his sponsorship of federal legislation to ban the cloning of human embryos. That move enraged many of his supporters in the right-to-life movement, so Talent then came out against a state ballot initiative that would add a provision to the Missouri Constitution protecting the right to conduct stem cell research.

Then, on Wednesday, Talent said that position was his own and that he was not really urging voters to join him because "everyone has to reach their own personal judgment and make a decision based on that." If someone published a book called "Profiles in Parsing," it would become this year's bestseller among Republican candidates.

"All politics is reaction," Randall Rothenberg wrote in his 1984 book, "The Neoliberals." Rothenberg was describing the response of Democrats traumatized by the rise of Reagan-style conservatism. Back then, it was Democrats struggling to reinvent themselves as entrepreneur-friendly folks (anybody remember those "Atari Democrats"?) moving beyond "the solutions of the 1930s."

The current reaction is not simply to President Bush's low poll numbers. It's also a response to the failure of conservative policies and to the declining appeal of conservative rhetoric. Conservatives are trying to save themselves by offering progressive-sounding criticisms of the status quo, much as liberals offered ersatz conservative critiques two decades ago.

If Rick Santorum wants you to look at his record in a way that makes him a paladin for the poor and if Dennis Hastert wants you to know that he's suspicious of the oil companies, the political weather is changing. When one side starts making the other side's argument, you don't need to be a pollster to know which belief system is in the ascendancy.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company