Dan Balz's Take
Who's the Real Republican?
Mitt Romney created a stir over the weekend with his assertion that he speaks for "the Republican wing of the Republican Party." His comment drew a swift rebuke from John McCain, who challenged the former Massachusetts governor's conservative credentials. But Romney may have raised a more pertinent question. Just what is the Republican wing of the Republican Party?
Romney did not intend to set off a discussion about the future of the Republican Party. His goal was more practical -- to separate himself from his most worrisome rival, Rudy Giuliani by claiming he represents the party's mainstream values in a way that the socially liberal former mayor cannot.
McCain intruded on the Romney-Giuliani spat, in part because he long has disliked aspects of the former governor's campaign and because Romney stands squarely in McCain's path in the critical New Hampshire primary, which is vital to restoring his hopes of winning the GOP nomination.
Speaking in New Hampshire on Saturday, McCain cited Romney's checkered Republican past to question whether he should be trusted to lead the party in 2008. He noted that Romney had contributed money to a Democratic Senate candidate in 1992, had voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts presidential primary, had failed to endorse the Contract with America as a Senate candidate in 1994 and had distanced himself from the Reagan years in that same campaign.
"So you'll understand why I'm a little perplexed when Mitt Romney now suggests that he's a better Republican than me, or that he speaks for the Republican wing of the Republican Party," McCain said.
This argument will continue until Republican voters start to bring some clarity to what remains a muddled and unpredictable nomination battle. The question of the party's future, however, will fall squarely on the shoulders of the candidate who emerges victorious. What kind of party will he inherit?
That this is a troubled time for Republicans is evident by the fulsome debate on the right about the future of conservatism. George W. Bush's presidency and the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 have left party leaders and intellectuals to debate the question of what's next for the GOP. As former White House official Pete Wehner and Yuval Levin put it in a recent article in the New York Sun, "Conservatives are in a funk."
A series of essays in the volume "The Future of Conservatism," edited by Charles W. Dunn, examines the strains inside the GOP in the post-Reagan era. The Republican coalition, like all successful major party coalitions, is inherently fractious and potentially unstable.
The scholars who contributed to the volume examine what contributed to the success of the party, particularly under Ronald Reagan, and what its future may hold. Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University, identifies five wings of the modern conservative movement: neoconservatives, libertarians, midwestern conservatives, traditionalists and religious conservatives.
James W. Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, identifies four: "traditionalist or paleoconservatism, neoconservatism, libertarianism and the religious right." Each, he argues, is founded on a different first principle, and while they all object to liberalism, it is often for different reasons.
The strains in this coalition are evident in the battle for the GOP nomination. Religious conservatives are in much more disarray than they were a few years ago, and the resentment toward what has been their preeminent position has grown through Bush's presidency.
Bush's big government conservatism has brought dissension from many conservatives, and his compassionate conservative agenda has proved far less compelling than he had hoped.
That leaves it to the presidential candidates to define the future, but their efforts to date have been tentative. They are in large part attempting to get back to Reaganism while dealing with a world that has changed dramatically since Reagan left office almost 20 years ago.
Romney speaks of the Republican coalition as a three-legged stool of conservatism: economic, security and family. Giuliani, he argues, represents only the first two and therefore is attempting to lead an unstable coalition that ultimately will lead the GOP to defeat and disillusionment. But as McCain notes, Romney's conservative bona fides are questionable.
Giuliani hopes to appeal to religious and social conservatives by encouraging them to look past differences over abortion and gay rights, a risky strategy that nonetheless has worked better than his doubters anticipated six months ago. His nomination would represent a dramatic reordering of the party that has enjoyed much success the past two decades.
McCain questions whether either Romney or Giuliani fully represents the party of Reagan, but his own maverick style of the past makes him suspect to many in the coalition. Would conservatives really trust McCain were he to become president? It's doubtful.
Fred Thompson had hoped to rise above the squabbling by presenting a compelling conservative agenda, but so far has failed to galvanize the party. Mike Huckabee may have solid conservative credentials, but many Republican voters doubt that he can win.
In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, when Republicans were asked who best reflects the core values of the party, McCain led with 26 percent, followed by Giuliani at 23 percent, Thompson at 21 percent and Romney with 13 percent.
Romney may have hoped his comment would crystallize his differences with Giuliani. Instead they have intensified a debate about the state of the Republican Party and what it should stand on and stand for in 2008. With few clear answers coming from those who seek to lead the party, it's no wonder conservatives remain worried about the future.
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