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Outlook: Congressional Conservatives, Rebooted

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Eve Fairbanks
New Republic Congressional Correspondent
Monday, October 6, 2008; 11:00 AM

"For the GOP's big honchos, last Monday's defeat of Treasury Secretary Paulson's plan in the House was still the most stinging humiliation they've suffered in years. To unlock the mystery of its stunning rejection, consider two numbers: 82 and 0. The first is the percentage of retiring Republican representatives who voted for the bill. The second is the percentage of Republican freshmen who did. ... What will the Republican Party's new guard look like? The answer lies in that most extreme and uncompromising of numbers: zero. The new guard is fiercely stubborn, gutsily insubordinate, drama-loving and -- compared with the 82-percent-for-compromise old guard -- unadulteratedly ideological."

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New Republic congressional correspondent Eve Fairbanks was online Monday, Oct. 6, 11 a.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article about the future of the Republican Party.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Eve Fairbanks: Hi all, Eve Fairbanks here from The New Republic magazine. The bailout failed -- then passed with tax breaks for the manufacturers of wooden kiddie arrows; the Dow's down 300 -- it's crazy time! Shoot me your questions.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Your article suggests a difference in political values between the older generation, about to retire, and the young freshmen in Congress. Isn't the reality that the retirees were under no political pressure and could vote for what they judged to be the good of the country, whereas most freshmen are at their most vulnerable as their first re-election approaches, and simply were frightened by the calls from their constituents? That's a difference in career stage, not a difference in governing philosophy.

Eve Fairbanks: Hi, Fairfax County -- shout out to where I grew up! You make a good point, and I think the reality enfolds both your idea and mine. It was striking how many GOP retirees voted for the bailout originally -- 82 percent -- and did suggest that the nonpolitical move was to vote in favor. On the other hand, lots of Democratic freshmen voted for the bill -- more than half of them, actually, including some vulnerable ones like Tim Mahoney of Florida or Jerry McNerney of California. The American Conservative Union ratings make it pretty clear there is also a difference in governing philosophy between the newbies and the retirees.

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Arlington, Va.: Isn't this a recurring theme of any new group of conservatives or even liberals in Congress? You know, the "young turks" vs. the "old guard"? I seem to remember similar stories in the early 1990s of a hard-core group of conservatives led by a guy named Gingrich. Who's the "Gingrich" of this group?

Eve Fairbanks: I remember that guy Newt, too. Whatever happened to him? I'd say this group still is looking for its Gingrich. I know it seems hard to remember now, after he flamed out so spectacularly, but Newt was incredibly charismatic -- he had his set of followers, the "Newtoids," who hung on his every word; he had all these huge ideas he would put up on sticky notes in his office, like a crazy genius; and so on. The interesting thing about this group is that it shares some of Newt's politics, but it doesn't have a charismatic, larger-than-life figure yet. Sen. Jim DeMint, for all his myriad virtues, does not ooze charm.

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Savannah, Ga.: Do you think this new generation is misreading the mood? One of the turning points in Gingrich's "revolution" was the federal shutdown. Americans want a government that actually gets things done when it has to. If your ideology gets in the way of that, most people I know would be none too pleased, whatever side of the aisle you're on.

Eve Fairbanks: I mean, I'd be worried about that if I was Republican leader! The National Review ran a fascinating story about a year ago related to this topic, in which David Frum and Ramesh Ponnuru excoriated Republicans who wanted to relive some kind of Reagan fantasy. The interesting thing they showed was what a nonstarter anti-big-budget rhetoric was these days -- people were more concerned about health care.

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San Francisco: Couple of questions for you: Any idea if there is a similar type of trend among either '06 freshman Democrats or likely '08 Democratic freshman? Also, I'm a bit confused as to how these guys got elected. Was it all about impressive on-the-ground campaigns? Is the electorate shifting similarly (my sense is no)? Was the conservative base reacting to their frustration with Bush (although what Bush lost as president was his "compassionate" reputation, not his "conservative" one)? Thanks!

Eve Fairbanks: There isn't a similar trend -- at all. The '06 freshman Democrats are very conservative -- in fact, Republicans kvetch that they're hardly even Democrats!

On those conservative freshmen, well, since the vast majority of competitive seats were won by Democrats in '06, most of them are replacing retiring Republicans in quite conservative districts where the Democrat never had a chance. (One GOP frosh from Florida, Gus Bilirakis, actually just replaced his dad Mike Bilirakis.) So they were more likely to be conservative. But I also think it's the direction the party's going ... and a psychological thing, if I can put it that way. Being in the minority carries a great deal of miseries -- see this weekend's New York Times Magazine story, which could have been titled "The Lamentations of GOP Rep. Tom Davis." It's fun to stick it to Democrats, to deny them wins, to be pains in their butts from the right wing. More fun than feeling like you're caving.

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Sun Prairie, Wis.: Good morning, Ms. Fairbanks. I wonder about your conclusions about this "new generation" of House Republicans. Coming to office in the age of the permanent campaign, they voted without hesitation against a very unpopular bill. I'm not sure what this proves. For the past eight years, House Republicans did whatever the Bush White House told them to do and said whatever the White House told them to say, right up until the point that President Bush became unpopular and the administration became identified with a couple of issues (immigration and this bailout bill) that generated lots of hostile phone calls from their constituents. I know some of them are talking a good game about small government now, but why do you think this talk is more than just hot air?

Eve Fairbanks: Oh, it's hotter than what comes out of my morning blow dryer right now. Hot air is all a congressional minority can really deliver.

But I think a lot of these guys -- Hensarling, DeMint -- feel, now, like they're quite serious about their small government philosophy. DeMint was something of a right-wing gadfly even back in the House, which he joined in 1998, when the GOP had the majority. Hensarling was a protege of Phil "You're All Whiners" Gramm. As Newt showed in the mid-'90s, though, it's a lot easier to talk a good game about small government than it is to actually govern from that perspective.

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McLean, Va.: I'm glad someone brought up Newt. I think he didn't just have charisma, but is a truly thoughtful man with a wide-ranging knowledge of government and U.S. history -- a true policy intellectual. Where does he stand in all this, do you know? It would be hard to find someone his equal from the present ranks of the party.

Eve Fairbanks: Now that I look him up, it looks like Newt has been in the mix for all this. Actually, he called for Hank Paulson's resignation! And NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported that he was whipping votes against the bill without House minority leader John Boehner's knowledge. Reliving old times a little, I guess.

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Re: 1994 Class: Come on, aren't we mythologizing Gingrich and his ilk a bit? The "Contract with America" was just a bunch of poll-tested measures slapped together shortly before an election where Clinton had made some big missteps (gays in the military, Hillarycare) along with the full effects of the 1990 redistricting being felt, where the Bush Department of Justice and black civil rights leaders carved majority minority districts that compacted Democratic-leaning voters in a smaller number of districts.

Eve Fairbanks: Maybe, but these myths take hold. I see a lot of Newt -- or the idea of Newt, the legend of Newt, whatever -- in Hensarling, Pence and the GOP new guard. It's interesting, though, that they almost never invoke the Dread Newt's name. Maybe because he's still associated with whining that he forced the government shutdown because he felt insulted that Bill Clinton made him sit at the back of Air Force One. That episode didn't give the cause of taking a stand on behalf of small government such a good reputation.

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Pittsburgh: If the GOP's worst nightmare occurs -- namely a strong sweep by Democrats in the November election -- how many members of the remaining Republican minority in the House and Senate will be so demoralized that they'll want to get out? Wouldn't that take even more power out of old-guard hands and put it into those of the "young Turks" for future leadership?

Eve Fairbanks: Oh yes.

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Re: Your Comparison to the '92 Revolution: Is the key issue here that the brand has been so damaged that the it is virtually impossible to form an agenda that would result in organizing principles and the emergence of a natural leader?

Eve Fairbanks: Maybe. But the Hensarling-Pence-Coburn-DeMint-led new guard has relatively strong principles -- small government, Draconian stands against spending, free trade (for the most part), social conservatism (although that seems to be somewhat less important to them than economic libertarianism).

The trouble is these ideas seem to be out of fashion -- it's like these guys were defiantly wearing white jeans and New Kids on the Block jackets. Then again, I saw somebody on the street yesterday in a side ponytail and leggings. I think these guys are betting that if they wait long enough, and the Democrats under a possible Obama administration overreach, then their ideas will swing back into fashion.

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Montreal: If McCain loses, who are likely to be national leaders for the Republicans, the key public faces of the party, and those likely to be the next backroom players? And what the heck will their policies be?

Eve Fairbanks: If McCain loses, I think you'll see a leadership struggle as nasty as a dozen weasels put in a jar. Some of these young turks could mount a leadership coup against Boehner in the House or McConnell in the Senate. And the struggle for who takes over the philosophical helm of the party will be just as intense and fascinating. My sleeper bet on who'll be up after the dust settles is Mike Huckabee. I will say I'm not putting any money on Sarah Palin.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Ah, the sad songs, the crocodile tears of the moderate Republicans. Were you really suckered in by all of Rep. Tom Davis's blubbering?

Eve Fairbanks: You know that Solomon Burke song "Cry to Me"? It was written about political reporters.

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St. Mary's City, Md.: What "myriad virtues" did you mean for Sen. DeMint? His agenda for public schools comes close to being theocratic -- mandatory prayer, a ban on gays as teachers, and even "God Bless America" banners.

Eve Fairbanks: I was being a little tongue-in-cheek. But DeMint is very nice certainly and he sure does make clear what he believes. No before-it-before-he-was-against-it there.

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Oakland, Calif.: Do you see any similarities between these new House Republicans and the Republican Party in California (where Ah-nold was elected governor despite his party's nomination)? After all -- "it's fun to stick it to Democrats, to deny them wins, to be pains in their butts from the right wing," but it also runs the risk of making your party become a permanent minority opposition party, rather than a viable challenger for the majority.

Eve Fairbanks: That's a risk. You see a similar thing happening in the politics of certain other states -- Virginia being one within The Washington Post's circulation area. Instead of having a Senate primary this year, they held a convention, which was dominated by party activists, and ended up nominating a much more conservative Senate candidate -- Jim Gilmore -- than a primary probably would have yielded. There's still bitterness lingering from that convention-over-primary decision out in Virginia.

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Laurel, Md.: Isn't it usually true that if the Democrats pick up seats, both the average Democrat and average Republican in Congress become more conservative, because the incoming Democrats are more conservative than average and the outgoing Republicans more liberal? And vice-versa? Given that the Republicans didn't pick up a single seat, every incoming Republican replaced another one. How does the freshman class compare to their predecessors on the ADA scale, for instance?

Eve Fairbanks: Yes, that's true. But Democrats recently have been more willing to give their moderates free rein than Republicans recently have been. For another story, I interviewed moderate GOP Rep. Chris Shays last year, and he mused to me "I think the Blue Dogs [the coalition of conservative Democrats] have represented more of a force in the Democratic Party than Main Street [the coalition of liberal GOPers] represented in our conference when we were in charge." Maybe I was just being a sucker for blubbering again, but I thought that was an interesting point.

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Washington: How do conservatives plan to counter the ideological divide they themselves have created? For me, I've always been socially liberal and fiscally conservative, but the GOP's hypocrisy on social issues (strict construction and equal rights, religion vs. sex scandals, smaller government vs. Reagan and W. deficits, strong law enforcement vs. corruption scandals) pretty much have made the GOP and the religious right the extreme opposite of everything I believe in. How can these "purists" advance a party that has lost the middle?

Eve Fairbanks: I'm not sure, Washington. I mentioned Huckabee earlier because -- during the Iowa primaries -- he was somebody who didn't stick to old formulas, but seemed to represent a refreshed, realigned version of the party: socially conservative, economically more liberal (or what Mike Gerson would call "compassionate"). Now, this wouldn't work for you, but it was very popular in Iowa. And he's very charismatic. If he backed away from some of his more extreme social views, could he gain traction?

Housekeeping: I noticed in my earlier reply about DeMint that I made a typo. My sentence should have read, "he is very nice personally," not "he is very nice certainly," which is a little Palin-esque.

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"There's still bitterness lingering from that convention-over-primary decision out in Virginia": And a GOP candidate who's trailing in the polls going into the general election by 30 points.

Eve Fairbanks: Gilmore's 30 point deficit out in Virginia contributed, I think, to Tom Davis's New York Times blubberfest. He widely was considered the moderate alternative to Gilmore, but the state party essentially gave him the middle finger. I doubt he could have beaten Mark Warner, who has Godlike status in Virginia, but he sure would not have been trailing by 30 points.

I've got time for one more question.

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Fairfax, Va.: I'm one of those moderate Republicans who has crossed the aisle and registered as a Democrat. Ronald Reagan correctly saw big government and high taxes as a problem, but he also was pragmatic enough to choose solutions over ideology when he had to make a choice. Thanks to Reagan, today government is not too invasive, and taxes are not too high. If these Hensarling Republicans (?) are convinced that it is better to be pure than get anything done, then the people who realize you have to get something done all are going to switch to the Democrats -- and they seem to have a big enough tent to accommodate anyone.

Eve Fairbanks: Quick note from an above reply: To keep my high school government teacher from coming after me, I should correct myself -- Iowa has caucuses, of course, not primaries.

Fairfax, you make a noteworthy point. Right now the Democratic tent welcomes anybody, but that won't last forever. If we go into 2009 with a Democratic president and Democrats in control in both houses of Congress, I think you'll see more liberal Democrats -- feeling like they have the right to be done compromising -- try to pick up those poles and try to move them leftwards. It'll be a fascinating 111th Congress.

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