Monday, November 13, 2006

With the 2006 Election Lost, Republicans Plunge Headlong Into the Blame Game

Mehlman Quits as GOP Chairman As Angry Factions Point Accusing Fingers at Each Other; R.I.'s Lame-Duck Senator Chafee KOs Bolton U.N. Nomination -- And May Bolt From the Party As Well

By Michael Grunwald
The Washington Post

After minutes upon minutes of soul-searching, Republicans are now in full-fledged recrimination mode. The Grand Old Party'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 last Tuesday, moderate Republicans quickly concluded that the party needs to be more moderate. Conservative Republicans promptly fired back that it should be more conservative.

Main Street is angry at Wall Street. Theo-cons are angry at neo-cons. Conservative radio talkmeisters are are angry at everyone. And everyone is angry at President Bush and the GOP congressional leadership.

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

[On Friday, GOP officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has decided to step down from his post when his two-year term ends in January.

[Brian Jones, an RNC spokesman, declined to comment beyond saying that an announcement about Mehlman's future with the party would be made in the days ahead].

Finger-Pointing In Multiple Directions

By day's end on Wednesday, Republican fingers had pointed at every conceivable Republican scapegoat: Mehlman; disgraced ex-Representative Mark Foley (R-Florida) and his scandal-plagued colleagues; presidential adviser Karl Rove -- and even Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), the party's likely front-runner for the 2008 presidential nomination.

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."

Lame-Duck Senator Chafee Kills Bolton's U.N. Nomination . . .

[Two days after losing a bid for a second term, the GOP's last remaining liberal in the Senate, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, effectively killed Bush's hopes of continuing John Bolton's tenure as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when he announced Thursday that he would continue opposing Bolton.

[Apparently figuring that he no longer had anything to lose, Chafee told reporters at a Washington news conference that he would join all seven Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in blocking Bush's nomination of Bolton as the permanent U.N. ambassador.

[The hard-line, ultraconservative Bolton was nominated by Bush in the spring of 2005, but Democrats on the committee, combined with Chafee, refused to allow the nomination to move to the Senate floor. Bush ultimately appointed Bolton in August 2005 while Congress was in its summer recess.

["The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of fronts, and presumably one of those is on foreign policy," Chafee said Thursday. "And at this late stage in my term, I'm not going to endorse something the American people have spoke out against."

[With his nomination effectively killed even before the lame-duck session of the GOP-led Senate convenes later this month -- and with the Democrats taking over in January -- Bolton will be forced to step down when his appointment expires at the end of the year.

. . .And Hints That He May Quit the GOP

[Chafee, who lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the election that proved to be a referendum on President Bush, also hinted that he may follow the retiring Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont and abandon the GOP, but he wouldn't say if he would, like Jeffords, become an independent -- or switch to the Democrats.

["I haven't made any decisions. I just haven't even thought about where my place is," Chafee said. When pressed on whether his comments indicated he might leave the GOP, he replied: "That's fair."

[The 53-year-old Chafee is a lifelong Republican who has represented Rhode Island since he was appointed to succeed his late father, John Chafee, in 1999 and was elected in his own right a year later. The elder Chafee held the seat for 23 years before his death.

[In recent years, both father and son became the last of a now-almost-extinct American political species: a northeastern liberal Republican in an increasingly southern-dominated conservative party.]

Moderates vs. Conservatives vs. Far-Right Ideologues

The common theme of the GOP "Recrimimarathon" going on now is that the party lost its way after seizing control of Congress in 1994, focusing on power and perks instead of on 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 to independents in the middle (whom exit polls showed they abandoned the GOP in droves last Tuesday, voting two-to-one in favor of the Democrats).

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-Resnick 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 conservative-dominated Republican National Committee's first talking point for the day was: "Recommitting to conservative reform." Representatives Mike Pence (R-Indiana) and John Shadegg (R-Arizona) announced campaigns for minority leader and minority whip by invoking the GOP's 1994 "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."

One Point of Agreement: Scandals Hurt GOP the Most

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," only to see those accusations blow up in their faces in the wake of a slew of GOP scandals both inside and outside the Beltway.

On Wednesday, the committee's 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 Ney of Ohio, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas -- are already out of Congress, and the party lost theirs and several other "scandal seats" on Tuesday.

Hard-Line Conservatives Insist That GOP Focus on Abortion, Gay Marriage

But conservatives such as Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) 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 hot-button social issues.

But Moderates Warn of GOP Turning Into a Right-Wing Fringe Party

But moderates are convinced that's a formula for reducing the party to electoral irrelevance. Moderate Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-California) easily won reelection by finding common ground with Democrats -- and defying Bush -- on such issues as global warming and education spending.

Moderate Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) was re-elected Tuesday with 73 percent of the vote in a predominantly Democratic state -- and would have certainly lost if she had taken a hard right turn, the moderates argue.

"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 [right-wing] 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, leaving most GOP survivors of the election the very hard-line conservatives the moderates fear.

"Oh, my God, it was a bloodbath for us," Chamberlain-Resnick said. "We paid the price for [blindly following] the president's agenda."

(Additional reporting provided by The Associated Press.)

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Volume I, Number 53
Special Report Copyright 2006, The Washington Post Company.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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