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DISPATCH FROM THE GOP

Republicans' Angry Factions Point Fingers At Each Other

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said the Republicans misread the 2004 election as a conservative mandate.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said the Republicans misread the 2004 election as a conservative mandate. (By Joel Page -- Associated Press)

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By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

After minutes upon minutes of soul-searching, Republicans are now in recrimination mode. And the GOP's various factions all agree: This wouldn't have happened if the party had listened to us.

In the aftermath of the historic GOP losses Tuesday night, moderate Republicans quickly concluded that the party needs to be more moderate. Conservative Republicans declared that it should be more conservative. Main Street is angry at Wall Street, theo-cons are angry at neo-cons, and almost everyone is angry at President Bush and the GOP congressional leadership.

The party purges formally began yesterday, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) agreed to step down before they were pushed. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had already decided to leave Congress, but GOP insiders said Tuesday's debacle should eliminate him from presidential contention in 2008.

By day's end, Republican fingers had pointed at every conceivable Republican scapegoat: ex-representative Mark Foley of Florida and his scandal-plagued colleagues, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, presidential adviser Karl Rove, even Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Of course, everyone agrees that Iraq is a huge problem as well, although no one seems to think that getting rid of Rumsfeld will solve it.

"We ought to just mend our wounds, bury our dead, learn from our mistakes and move on," said GOP lobbyist Ed Rogers. "But first we're going to have go through this. Look, bad policy and bad politics makes for bad elections."

The common theme of the Recriminatathon is that the party lost its way after seizing control of Congress in 1994, focusing on power and perks instead of principles. But behind all the maneuvering, posturing and backstabbing lingered a serious debate over the party's future, and what those principles should be. It's a familiar argument between confrontation and compromise: appealing to base voters on the right or independents in the middle.

The moderate Republican Main Street Partnership fired its first salvo on election night, unleashing a news release titled "Far Right Solely Responsible for Democratic Gains." Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, the partnership's director, complained that GOP leaders had rejected popular causes such as the minimum wage, embryonic stem cell research and lobbying reforms while ignoring health-care issues that did not involve Terri Schiavo. The result, she said, was that moderate suburban voters saw Republicans as extremists.

"This election isn't a repudiation of the GOP," Chamberlain said. "It's a repudiation of a handful of zealots, and a reminder that you can't build a majority party without securing the middle of the American electorate."

That wasn't the conclusion the right drew from Tuesday's losses. The main theme on GOP conference calls and the conservative blogosphere was that Republicans need to act like Republicans, returning to the small-government principles that helped them seize power in 1994. The RNC's first talking point for the day was: "Recommitting to conservative reform." Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) announced campaigns for minority leader and minority whip by invoking the GOP's "Contract With America" and criticizing Republicans for betraying principles of stronger ethics and tighter budgets.

"The American people did not quit on the contract," Pence said. "We did."

With the benefit of hindsight, most Republicans seemed to agree that their congressional leaders should have been more aggressive about ousting members engulfed in scandals. The RNC has sent e-mails for months accusing Democrats of a "culture of corruption," but yesterday its surprisingly self-critical talking points vowed to ensure "that the leaders in our party have public service as their highest calling and not personal enrichment or power."

Many of the tainted Republicans -- including Robert W. Ney (Ohio), Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Calif.) and former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) -- are already out of Congress, and the party lost several "scandal seats" Tuesday. But conservatives such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) believe Republicans need to change the pork-barrel culture that encouraged the use of public dollars for personal and political gain. Congressional "earmarks" have exploded on the GOP's watch, up by 700 percent since 1998, Coburn said, while domestic spending is up nearly 50 percent since 2001.

"Republicans became the party of government," said conservative activist Richard Viguerie. "With earmarks, with spending, with the prescription drug benefit, with the Foley case, it became clear that they would spend anything and do anything to hold on to power."

To Viguerie, the solution is clear: Cut spending, shrink government and lead from the right on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues.

But moderates are convinced that's a formula for electoral irrelevance. Moderate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) easily won reelection by finding common ground with Democrats -- and defying Bush -- on such issues as global warming and education spending. Moderate Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) was reelected yesterday with 73 percent of the vote in a blue state.

"We misread the election of 2004 as a conservative mandate when 45 percent of the American people describe themselves as moderates," Snowe said. "If we move even further towards hard-core ideology, we'll be in the minority for a long time."

The only problem for Snowe and the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership is that nearly half of its members were defeated on Tuesday.

"Oh, my God, it was a bloodbath for us," Chamberlain said. "We paid the price for the president's agenda."


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