Politics & Government

Factions threaten to destabilize the GOP in 2008

GOP candidates debate, voters choose.
GOP candidates debate, voters choose. David P. Gilkey / Detroit News

WASHINGTON — Some Republican social conservatives are talking about maybe dropping out and forming a third party. Economic conservatives are angry that the GOP Congress and President Bush went on a six-year spending spree. Then there’s Iraq, and the question of whether the party is too rigid in support of the unpopular war.

This is the mess that is the national Republican Party, vintage October 2007 — a fragmenting coalition in search of a center that might hold. As voters prepare to pick a 2008 presidential nominee, the GOP confronts a central quandary: Can anyone bring these factions together?

Even that question divides the faithful.

The prevailing view for the moment is that unity is just months away, thanks to the prospect that New York Sen. Hillary Clinton may become the Democratic nominee.

“Nothing will bring Republicans together better than the prospect of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” said Fergus Cullen, New Hampshire's Republican chairman.

Others aren't so confident, particularly if the current GOP poll leader, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is the nominee.

“He’s stated a pro-abortion-rights position,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative group. “There is nothing more fundamental to social conservatives than the preservation of human life. Right behind that is the issue of marriage, which he is vulnerable on. It gives social conservatives very little to be motivated.”

They could even turn to a third-party candidate. A group of leading social conservatives gathered in Utah last month and discussed the prospect, and it’s expected to come up again this weekend when they gather for a four-day “Washington Briefing 2007” and hear from GOP presidential candidates. Sponsoring organizations include the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

The activists want to hear pledges of allegiance to a wide array of conservative causes.

“Abortion is the number one issue, but I also care deeply about the rapid expansion of the federal government,” said Howard Phillips, the chairman of the Conservative Caucus, a grass-roots advocacy group.

That illustrates that frustration on the right rises from more than social issues.

In Congress, a sizable GOP contingent is upset that the party isn't doing more to curb spending and lower taxes, even if it means voting against the Democratic-led expansion of the popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“Make no mistake about it,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “This bill is a government-run, socialized medicine wolf masquerading in the sheepskin of children’s health care.”

Iraq, too, is beginning to split the party base. While Arizona Sen. John McCain lost his front-runner status in part by championing the war, libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul is gaining traction in part by stoutly opposing it.

But it's the social conservatives who pose the greatest challenge to GOP unity, and they’ve shown over the past 30 years that they’re willing to fight — or stay home — to make their point. Political strategist Karl Rove once estimated that 4 million evangelical voters opted not to vote in 2000 after it was revealed that George W. Bush had been charged in 1976 with drunken driving. Their absence made the race much closer than Rove had expected.

So when social conservatives talked last month about a possible third-party run, they were taken seriously.

Such talk, said Perkins, “reveals there’s a very serious fault line within the Republican Party. The message there to Republicans is, ‘Don’t build on a fault line.’ If you want to see your house come down, build on that fault line.’’

Conservative activist Gary Bauer warns that such a step would be highly impractical.

“You immediately get into all the messy things you get into when you made your home in the Republican Party,” he said. “Is it only going to be a pro-life third party, or is it going to take positions on, for example, the gun issue?

“Well, if it takes a position on the gun issue,” he said, “it’s going to alienate some pro-life people. So very quickly, this idea that there's a pure, clean alternative for Christian voters, I think, sort of falls apart.”

Perhaps more important, third-party candidates usually hand victory in November to the party that hasn’t splintered — think how Ross Perot drained of conservatives from the GOP in 1992, or George C. Wallace took Southern whites from the old Democratic coalition in 1968.

While Bauer calls a Giuliani vs. Clinton race “a very frustrating option,” he noted that “I think there are a lot of steps — talking to him (Giuliani) behind closed doors, getting commitments on things that matter. … They're trying to move him on issues.”Social conservatives thought they had their candidate two years ago in Virginia Sen. George Allen, but when Allen lost his Senate seat last year, he was done.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is bidding for their loyalty, but his history of support for gay rights and abortion rights — positions he's since changed — makes them suspicious.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, would seem a logical choice and he's picked up some backing, but his still-low poll numbers make many believe he can't win.

The latest hope, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, is scoring only lukewarm reactions. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson recently dismissed Thompson this way: "He has no passion, no zeal and no apparent 'want to.' "

The biggest reason for social conservatives to stay with Republicans is simple, said Peter W. Schramm, director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs in Ohio.

With Congress in Democratic hands and likely to stay that way next year, the biggest influence a Republican president can have will be on the appointment of judges. All the GOP candidates, he said, would name conservative jurists. And Clinton, or any Democrat, would name judges that would make Republicans recoil.

So Schramm expects even disgruntled Republicans to remember in the end that politics “is not the art of theology. It’s the art of the imperfect.”