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Steele-Limbaugh Clash Sparks Debate Over Next Steps for GOP

March 3, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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New questions are surfacing over the future of the Republican Party amid a public dispute between GOP National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Political analysts assess what's next for the GOP.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: After losing political ground in Congress in the nation’s statehouses and especially at the White House, the Republican Party is at a crossroads. But who is speaking for the GOP, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh…

RUSH LIMBAUGH, radio talk show host: This notion that I want the president to fail, folks, this shows you a sign of the problem we’ve got.

GWEN IFILL: … or newly elected party chairman Michael Steele?

MICHAEL STEELE, Republican Party chairman: Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it’s incendiary. Yes, it’s ugly.

GWEN IFILL: Limbaugh was cheered over the weekend when he appeared before a Conservative Political Action Conference. And Steele, after being chided by Limbaugh for his critique, apologized, telling the Politico newspaper, “There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”

Democrats, including the president himself and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have fanned the flames of the apparent conflict.

RAHM EMANUEL, White House chief of staff: And it’s our desire that the Republicans would work with us and try to be constructive rather than adopt the philosophy of somebody like Rush Limbaugh, who’s praying for failure.

BOB SCHIEFFER, host, “Face the Nation”: Who do you think now speaks for the Republican Party?

RAHM EMANUEL: You just named him. It was Rush Limbaugh. He is the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party.

NARRATOR: What did they say to 3.5 million jobs?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, House minority leader: No.

NARRATOR: What did they say to tax cuts?

GWEN IFILL: Americans United for Change, a liberal group aligned with the Democratic Party, repeated that theme in a campaign-style ad.

NARRATOR: So who are Republican leaders listening to?

RUSH LIMBAUGH: I want him to fail.

Divisions within the GOP

Former Rep. Vin Weber
R-Minn.
When we talk about Rush Limbaugh, we're talking about a genuine leader of the conservative movement, but it is quite different than leadership of the Republican Party as a whole, and I think that Rush Limbaugh would be the first to say that.

GWEN IFILL: Much is at stake for the GOP, which gained ground in only four states in the 2008 election: West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Joining us to venture an answer to that question are two long-time Republican activists, former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Welcome to you both.

So, Vin Weber, what are we to make of all of this internal back-and-forth going on in your party these days?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER, R-Minn.: Well, I want to start by making a distinction that I think a lot of your viewers may not quite know, but the conservative movement as a whole is really quite distinct from the Republican Party in a way that I would say the progressive movement or liberal movement is not quite distinct from the Democratic Party.

And that's partially because, back in the 1970s when we saw the formation of a lot of the organizations that we today call the conservative movement, it was very directly because of frustration with the Republican Party of Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, and Nelson Rockefeller, and wage price controls, and all sorts of other things.

So there is a -- when we talk about Rush Limbaugh, we're talking about a genuine leader of the conservative movement, but it is quite different than leadership of the Republican Party as a whole, and I think that Rush Limbaugh would be the first to say that.

So we're seeing really played out a distinction that has existed for a long time but wasn't quite as clear when the Republicans held the presidency.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Grover Norquist about it. Would you be the second to agree after Rush Limbaugh that this is so?

GROVER NORQUIST, Americans for Tax Reform: Well, look, there's a very important set of projects that need to be done in the next two and four years. There isn't one leader for either the conservative movement or the Republican Party, and there's certainly no one person who's the leader of both.

Steele is head of the Republican National Committee, which is important, but there's a congressional committee, there's a senatorial committee, there are 50 state committees, there are 3,000 county committees. Rush Limbaugh is a very important spokesman for modern conservative thought, but there are dozens of and maybe even hundreds of writers and commentators.

A properly organized movement and a properly organized party have thousands of people being very active. Someone will be nominated for the presidency, but even he isn't the leader of the party and the movement. He's one of many.

Reinvigorating the Republican base

Former Rep. Vin Weber
R-Minn.
There is a little tension between the desire to re-establish the party in places where it has almost ceased to exist, like New England, and the desire to reinvigorate our base and re-establish the Republican brand...

GWEN IFILL: So, Vin Weber, explain to us then what we've been seeing unfold this week. There seems to be friction about who gets to speak and how one establishes one's opposition to someone like President Obama.

VIN WEBER: We do see, I think, a tension here. The Republican Party in the last two election cycles saw itself reduced to a fairly regional party, enormous weakness in the Northeast, in the Northwest, considerable weakness in parts of the Midwest.

And they want to expand their footprint substantially. And in different parts of the country, you know, not all Republicans are exactly alike.

You also have a great frustration on the part of conservative leaders with the direction the party has taken over the last eight years that we were in control, basically, on particular issues of spending and the size of government. And they are saying we need to go back to our conservative roots even more purely.

Well, those are not necessarily inherently in conflict, but there is a little tension between the desire to re-establish the party in places where it has almost ceased to exist, like New England, and the desire to reinvigorate our base and re-establish the Republican brand on issues that are core to our identity, like taxes and spending and the size of government.

GWEN IFILL: Grover Norquist, does Michael Steele represent one side of this argument and Rush Limbaugh another?

GROVER NORQUIST: I think this is a false argument between the two of them. Both of them play important roles in the modern conservative movement and the modern Republican Party, broadly speaking.

What the House Republicans have done, I think, is exactly right. They've said "no" to the president's stimulus spending package, which will hurt the economy, and they've put forward an alternative that will actually help the economy grow.

The Republicans are quite correctly putting forward alternatives that would be useful, and positive, and constructive, and saying "no" to damaging things.

I mean, the Obama administration, the Democratic Congress are driving the stock market into the ground with their very bad proposals. The Republicans are right to say "no" to that, but it's also important that they're putting forward good ideas.

Criticism of Obama's policies

Grover Norquist
Americans for Tax Reform
It's the nerve of Obama to say that criticism of him is disrespectful to the country. He isn't the country. He is not Fearless Leader. He's the head of the executive branch of government.

GWEN IFILL: Are Republicans also right to say, as Rush Limbaugh has, that they hope that the president fails?

GROVER NORQUIST: Only President Obama equates himself with the nation. When people say, "I hope that Obama is stopped in his effort to raise taxes and spending," that's opposition to Obama's policies.

We want the country to succeed, which is why we oppose the bad things, the damaging taxes and spending and regulations and trial lawyer stuff that Obama and the Democrats are putting forward.

He is not Louis XIV, "L'etat c'est moi." It's the nerve of Obama to say that criticism of him is disrespectful to the country. He isn't the country. He is not Fearless Leader. He's the head of the executive branch of government.

GWEN IFILL: But he's an awfully popular president right now, Vin Weber. So what does the party do to establish its opposition without seeming as if they're on the wrong side here?

VIN WEBER: Well, you're right he's a popular president. And they have to treat him with great respect and deference. And the phrasing of how you oppose his programs has to be done so that you don't want America to fail, even if that's the interpretation that he seems to put on it sometimes.

But the Republicans can't simply embrace a left-wing agenda, which is increasingly what we're seeing out of this administration, not a centrist, bipartisan agenda, but a left-wing agenda, without losing their soul.

GWEN IFILL: So you -- when you say a left-wing agenda, you're speaking particularly -- pardon me -- about spending?

VIN WEBER: About spending, taxing, regulating, and the most substantial expansion of the size of government certainly in any of our lifetimes. The president is doing it because he believes in it. He campaigned on it. His party believes in it, but it's not what Republicans believe in.

As Grover pointed out, the reason we don't believe in it is because we think it's bad for America. Republicans didn't vote against the so-called stimulus package because they just wanted to try to embarrass President Obama. They voted against it because they thought it would hurt the economy, drive people out of work, drive down the stock market.

Regaining lost ground

Grover Norquist
Americans for Tax Reform
No longer having to defend the indefensible in some of Bush's spending programs and regulatory regimes and new ideas that we were all going to pay for is step one.

GWEN IFILL: Grover Norquist, the Republicans are at a crossroads. You did lose ground in the Congress this year. You lost ground, obviously, in the White House and governors mansions.

So how does the Republican Party now get itself back on track? This is the same dilemma Democrats faced not very long ago.

GROVER NORQUIST: Sure. Well, step one is we've removed the boat anchor that we were carrying around for the last eight years, and that was President Bush and his failure to focus on running the government and keeping it limited in its costs and what it's doing.

And so no longer having to defend the indefensible in some of Bush's spending programs and regulatory regimes and new ideas that we were all going to pay for is step one.

And step two is to focus on limiting the power and cost of government, and the House and Senate Republicans are doing a pretty good job of uniting around Ronald Reagan's view of limited government and a strong national defense.

GWEN IFILL: Does the Republican Party, Vin Weber, have to kind of work this out within itself first before it goes on to take on the other side?

VIN WEBER: Oh, sure. And all I would say, to put this in perspective, it's an interesting fight to watch. We're only a few months away from an election defeat.

Parties have to go through a period of rethinking where they've been. Maybe they go through a period of a little bit of bloodletting, even, and we're going through that.

But remember the point of where we are in time. A few months from now, I think you'll see the Republican Party coming together with a much more positive attitude about things, but you have to go through some of this sorting out.

You know, Grover just talked about the problems that we've had with our own administration over the last eight years. That has to sort of be aired. We elected a new chairman of the party, Michael Steele, after a very spirited contest.

But I'm pretty actually optimistic about the ability of the Republican Party to bounce back. I have seen better morale than I certainly would have expected at this stage after what has to be our second, you know, serious defeat at the polls last November.

GWEN IFILL: Former Congressman Vin Weber and Grover Norquist, thank you both very much.

GROVER NORQUIST: Thank you.