Looking Past the Elephant in The Room

Former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) often confines his mention of President Bush to praise for his Supreme Court appointments.
Former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) often confines his mention of President Bush to praise for his Supreme Court appointments. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 6, 2007

CORALVILLE, Iowa -- In a campaign swing through Iowa this week, former senator Fred D. Thompson told voters that Republicans need to look to their past to determine the party's future.

"I think back to 1994," Thompson told a crowd here Tuesday, referring to the conservative "revolution" that swept the GOP to control of Congress. "We need to adhere to the principles that made this party great and that made this country the greatest."

Others in the crowded Republican presidential field have different prescriptions for what ails the party. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is calling for a government that is more aggressive and effective in managing crises at home and abroad. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney contends that the GOP has drifted into an embrace of "big government" and must return to acting as "change-Washington Republicans."

For all the candidates, the unspoken problem is the same: how to establish a clear break from the legacy of President Bush and his sagging poll numbers without alienating the party faithful.

"We don't have an agreed-upon Republican theme yet," said David Frum, a conservative who served as a speechwriter for Bush during the president's first term, comparing the debate among Republicans to the one faced by Democrats at the end of the Clinton administration. "I think it's the nature of being the incumbent party that you will have more of a debate about where to go."

Advisers to each of the GOP presidential candidates agree that there is no incentive to bash Bush directly. Despite getting a 33 percent approval rating in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, the low of his presidency, Bush remains popular among core Republican voters. In Romney's stump speeches, his only reference to Bush is to praise him for the fact that there has been no terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 2001, while Thompson and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani often confine their mention of Bush to praise for his appointments of John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

"You don't want to run against the White House, but you also want to make it clear that you're your own person," said Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman who is one of Romney's top policy advisers. "You've got to be an independent person, but it's a little hard to define because the president is still the leader of our party."

But all of the contenders have sought to make subtle distinctions with Bush. Thompson and McCain say the United States should have mobilized more troops for the invasion of Iraq, while Romney and McCain say the response to Hurricane Katrina should have been handled better -- leaving no doubt that they have some concerns about the Bush presidency but stopping short of attacking his leadership.

They have railed against excessive federal spending and say they would be willing to veto spending bills, in contrast to Bush, who this week vetoed a bill over spending concerns for only the second time in his presidency.

Party strategists generally agree that while Republicans support the president's tax cuts and his tough stance against terrorism, the "compassionate conservatism" he initially advocated as a governing philosophy has failed to win over large parts of the party's base. Some of the initiatives, especially the president's push to make it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens, have proved unpopular.

"I never particularly liked that phrase, although it worked for him," Weber said of "compassionate conservatism." "A lot of the grass roots of the conservative Republicans have equated that phrase with spending on big government. They don't want to hear about how you're going to tackle a domestic agenda unless it's in the context of reducing spending in that area. The mood has shifted."

To be sure, all of the leading Republican candidates are emphatic about winning the battle against terrorism. But the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism are among their few areas of agreement as they look beyond the Bush years.

And while there is broad consensus that the party must find a way to move beyond Bush's legacy, there are widespread divisions within the GOP over the solutions. Some see a priority in the need to address ballooning spending, while others view social issues such as abortion and traditional marriage as paramount in determining the party's course.

With the first votes of the primary season looming ever closer, Republicans running to succeed Bush are not just arguing over their stances on key issues; they are making competing claims about what the next Republican president must stand for.

In his three-day trip through Iowa, Thompson criticized two of Bush's signature domestic achievements, a federally funded program providing prescription drugs to senior citizens and the No Child Left Behind Act -- the education law that was at the center of Bush's attempt to redefine the party during his first term.

Romney, by contrast, strongly backs No Child Left Behind. His aides say the Republican Party is a stool resting on three legs: national security, fiscal policy and family values.

Giuliani has made the case that his electability is more important than his support for abortion rights.

Another White House hopeful, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, laments the growing income inequality in America, a topic his fellow Republican candidates will not touch.

Next week, McCain will announce his plan for a major overhaul of the nation's health-care system, an issue to which some of the other candidates have paid scant attention.

"Conservatism is going through an interesting moment," said Peter H. Wehner, a former White House official who worked under Karl Rove as director of strategic initiatives. "It's still a center-right country, but [conservatism is] going through an interesting moment where it's got to consider fresh the issues it's going to put forward and the politics it's going to advance." Wehner described his party as "at sea" on domestic policy issues such as health care.

The unsettled nature of the debate on issues is particularly striking because, on the other side of the ledger, the Democratic presidential contenders agree on virtually everything. With their party united in its opposition to Bush, the Democrats are arguing over who is most sincere in their opposition to the war in Iraq, which candidate best represents "change" and who would be most effective in passing a universal health-care plan.

In some ways, the GOP candidates are more comfortable discussing what they are against than what they are for. When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) announced her health-care proposal, Giuliani, Romney and Thompson quickly posted attacks of it on their Web sites. The Republican candidates also jumped at the chance to lump in Clinton and the Democrats with the liberal group MoveOn.org, which has been under fire for a controversial ad it ran in the New York Times deriding Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, as "General Betray Us."

"If there's one unifying thread that runs through every campaign, it's that the party needs to nominate someone who can beat Hillary Clinton," said Todd Harris, Thompson's communications director.

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