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Rifts in GOP May Hinder Efforts to Build Unity Among Party Faithful

May 25, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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Rifts within the Republican Party have activists worried that infighting may hurt efforts by the GOP to rebuild following the 2008 election. Political analysts mull the effects of recent clashes among party leaders.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now, a look at divisions within the Grand Old Party. First, some background.

The growing debate about the future of the Republican Party spilled over on to the weekend news talk shows, but much of that debate was dominated by former, rather than current, party leaders, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

COLIN POWELL, former U.S. secretary of State: I have always felt that the Republican Party should be more inclusive than it generally has been over the years, and I believe we need a strong Republican Party that is not just anchored in the base, but has built on the base to include more individuals.

And if we don’t do that, if we don’t reach out more, the party is going to be sitting on a very, very narrow base. And you can only do two things with a base. You can sit on it and watch the world go by, or you can build on the base.

GWEN IFILL: Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.

JOHN KING, CNN anchor: Are you in the Rush Limbaugh-Dick Cheney version of the Republican Party or the Colin Powell version of the Republican Party?

TOM RIDGE, (R), former governor of Pennsylvania: I’m in the Tom Ridge version of the party. For the Republican Party to restore itself not as a regional party, but as a national party, we have to be far less judgmental about disagreements within the party and far more judgmental about our disagreements with our friends on the other side of the aisle.

GWEN IFILL: Former Bush adviser Karl Rove.

CHRIS WALLACE, Fox News anchor: Dick Cheney said, if it’s a battle between or a choice between Rush Limbaugh and Colin Powell, he sides with Limbaugh. Do you?

KARL ROVE, former Bush adviser: Yes, if I had to pick between the two. But you know what? Neither one of those are candidates. Neither one of those are going to be people who are offering themselves for office. Again, this is a false debate that Washington loves.

GWEN IFILL: And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

DAVID GREGORY, host, “Meet the Press”: Do you think Colin Powell is part of that Republican Party?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), former speaker of the House: Absolutely. Absolutely.

DAVID GREGORY: You think Dick Cheney was wrong?

NEWT GINGRICH: Yes, I — I don’t want to pick a fight with Dick Cheney, but I think — I think the fact is, the Republican Party has to be a broad party that appeals across the country.

And that does so — I mean, we have the governor of Vermont, we have the governor of Rhode Island. These are not states that are traditional southern right-wing states. To be a national party, you have to have a big enough tent that you inevitably have fights inside the tent.

GWEN IFILL: But are the fights inside the tent hurting or helping the Republican Party? Judy Woodruff takes it from there.

Poll shows centrism dominates

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
The public doesn't see the Republicans as standing for much. When we asked, "Who's responsible for the contention in Washington? Is it President Obama or is it the Congress or the Democrats versus the Republicans?" It's 6 to 1 the Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So who speaks for the Republican Party? What do they stand for? And what message should they be trying to send?

For that, we turn to Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Former U.S. Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, he served as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998 to 2002.

Reihan Salam, a fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, he's also the co-author of the book "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

And Katon Dawson, he recently stepped down as chair of the South Carolina Republican Party. He joins us from Columbia.

Thank you, gentlemen, all, for being with us.

And, Andy Kohut, I'm going to start with you. Pew has just researched a major poll that you do every two years on political values and what you call core attitudes. Tell us what you found about the American electorate and especially about Republicans.

ANDREW KOHUT, president, Pew Research Center: The overall lead of our survey was that centrism is the dominant factor as the Obama era begins. We have a record number of political independents, highest percentage of political independents in 70 years.

When we look at political values over the past two years, pre-Obama versus post-Obama, there's no shift. The country is not moving to the left; it's not moving to the right. It's conservative in the ways it was two years ago and liberal in the way it was two years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about Republicans in particular? What do you find about people who self-identify?

ANDREW KOHUT: Republicans are at a low ebb. Just 23 percent of them, 23 percent of the public thinks of itself as Republican. The Republicans are at a low in terms of image. Their demographic vitality, they have a real problem with that. They have aged over the past eight years by three years; Democrats have gotten younger. And they've remained 88 percent white Anglo, even as the population has become more diverse over the decade.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is it possible to know from the numbers why that's happened?

ANDREW KOHUT: The issues for the Republican Party, most of the damage was done during the Bush years, consequence of President Bush's unpopularity, the unpopularity of the congressional leadership in the Republican years.

More recently, the public doesn't see the Republicans as standing for much. When we asked, "Who's responsible for the contention in Washington? Is it President Obama or is it the Congress or the Democrats versus the Republicans?" It's 6 to 1 the Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Tom Davis, now that we've heard how the public sees the party -- you travel a lot, you talk to a lot of people -- what's the state of your party?

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS (R), Virginia: Well, it is at a low point right now, but, you know, the Democrats haven't had the burden of governing anything since Bill Clinton. And the voters made short work of them.

Governing is a tough business. And now that the Democrats control everything, I think what you'll see is a shift back if the Republicans are able to take advantage of this. The administration has to make a lot of tough decisions, and they're going to have a lot of disappointed constituencies.

Strength of the Republican Party

Tom Davis
Former Republican Congressman
We're a regional party right now. I mean, there are 18 states we've lost in five straight presidential elections. McCain wasn't within 10 points in any of those states. And the Senate lineup in those states is 34-2.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But let's talk about your party. How do you size up the strength and the state of your party?

TOM DAVIS: Well, we're a regional party right now. I mean, there are 18 states we've lost in five straight presidential elections. McCain wasn't within 10 points in any of those states. And the Senate lineup in those states is 34-2. We've got to find a way to penetrate these areas or we're going to be a permanent minority.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In South Carolina, Katon Dawson, what does it look like from there?

KATON DAWSON, former chair, South Carolina Republican Party: Well, I agree with Tom to a point that, right now, the demographics have changed, but let me address the polls. Forty-eight months ago, the Republicans were in charge of everything. And, you know, there's a pendulum and a shift in politics that's going on right now. And I think one of the things that Tom just made note of is there's a difference between campaigns and elections and governing.

And I think right now the Democratic Party is in control of everything, just like we were 48 months ago. And I think you'll look at a tremendous shift in the expectations game of what the party stands for and what we deliver.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about what Andy Kohut was describing as a demographic aging of the party, the fact that the party -- I believe he said this -- is somewhat more southern, stronger in the South than anywhere else? How do you see that?

KATON DAWSON: Well, it certainly is very strong in the southeast United States and in the Bible Belt, most definitely. But with that being said, go back into generational time, whether it was Ronald Reagan, or come all the way through the Bush years, the Clinton years, and you'll find out that the regional question is now up for grabs.

We lost Virginia. We lost Florida. We lost North Carolina in the election. So now the Republican Party is certainly at a low point.

But, again, the pendulum will start to swing again. And Tom did hit on it. The expectation levels of what this current administration is doing is now -- the bar has been set to exactly see what these policies of growing a bigger government, of expansion of government, and the debt that we've just created, the Obama administration in the last 100 days has created more debt than from George Washington to George Bush.

So let's -- we'll see exactly how the pendulum swings, but I do think that we have to address the fact that we are being labeled as a regional party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reihan Salam, you study the Republican Party. You've written a book and a lot more about it. How do you see it right now?

REIHAN SALAM, New America Foundation:  I see it as pretty grim, in part because of conservative success. Andy was mentioning that the country is as conservative as it was two or three years ago, and so Republicans fail to understand sometimes that they need to be a coalition party.

Liberals are about a fifth of the electorate, and so liberal Democrats know, "We need to reach out to moderates." And Democrats have done a good job of that, by blurring some of their positions, by compromising on gun rights and a wide variety of issues, by running pro-life candidates.

And Republicans, because there is a hard core of conservatives in the country who really do believe in small government and cutting taxes, increasingly believe that they don't need to reach out.

And that's something that I know Tom Davis has talked a lot about. And I think that's something that the Republicans will come to understand. And I think there are some good signs that they are understanding this.

Tensions on the state level

Katon Dawson
South Carolina Republican Party
I think that certainly what brought us the success electorally were the fact of limited government, limited spending, family values, and issues like that that Republicans have addressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a problem or is that a problem for the Republican Party, Tom Davis?

TOM DAVIS: It's a huge problem. The problem right now is at the grassroots level. I think the leadership understands that they're going to have to become a coalition and not a private club with a membership criteria to get in, that you have to pick this litmus test or that.

But you can already see the tensions in the Florida Senate race between the Senate campaign committee and the grassroots, which, as they've gotten smaller, have really gotten more vehement and more conservative and more exclusive. And that's going to be a problem that's got to be revolved over the next couple of years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you mean? What is that a reference to? You're nodding your head vigorously.

REIHAN SALAM: Well, I think that Florida is a fascinating example. You've got a governor, Charlie Crist, who is a governor who is a shrewd political opportunist. He is a guy who was a hard-core conservative through the '80s and '90s, and he tacked to the left to the center in recent years, sensing that Florida's electorate is shifting.

And, you know, frankly, a lot of conservatives are uncomfortable with that, but that's the reality of politics when you have to get to 50 percent. And there is a lot of resistance to him because he's seen as a traitor. He's seen as a guy who is a RINO, like Arlen Specter. And the truth is that he's not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: RINO, tell us -- remind us what that stands for.

REIHAN SALAM: RINO means "Republican in name only." And it is an absolute curse word for a lot of conservatives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Kohut, remind us quickly, what issues are Republicans doing well on right now and not so well on?

ANDREW KOHUT: One major issue, protecting the country against terrorism. On every other issue when we ask the public which party do you have more confidence in, it's the Democratic Party. Even on moral issues, the Republicans have lost their advantage.

One thing that I would like to add to this discussion, Judy, is, for the Republicans to succeed, they have to deal with the new guy in town. And the new guy in town is this swollen number of independents who have very mixed views about the issues of the day.

Yes, they're resistant to government intervention, close to a Republican point of view, but in the end, they say, yes, we have to really intervene in the free market. And an ideological approach turns these people off.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of that, Katon Dawson, there has been this big debate going on for some time now, months now in your party, about whether it should stick with its traditional values or make some shifts. How do you see it?

KATON DAWSON: Well, I think that certainly what brought us the success electorally were the fact of limited government, limited spending, family values, and issues like that that Republicans have addressed.

But I think the bigger crux of what we have to deal with now is, which party is going to talk to working America or people that are out of work? And there's certainly the economic heat that's out there now, is going to overweigh the core principles of the party right now that brought us to success.

I think it's going to be a fine mix right now of the Republican Party of -- to articulate what we're about and who we are. That brought us electoral success in the past, and it will again in the future.

But right now, we were handed two sounding defeats in 2006 and 2008. And I think, if you look at -- ask Tom and look at the poll numbers, you'll see that just spending government money won't make your party successful. We tried that, and look what it did to the Republican Party now.

Appealing to the middle class

Reiham Salam
New America Foundation
I think a fundamental problem, though, is that Barack Obama is very personally popular. It's not so much his ideology as he's a Teflon president not unlike Ronald Reagan. And I think that people are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about this question, Tom Davis, of sticking with traditional values or making some changes, appealing, as Katon Dawson just said, to the middle class?

TOM DAVIS: Well, look, I think, on the spending issues, Republicans need to unite at this point. When you spend a trillion dollars that you're borrowing and giving it out, you're going to be popular. That's what the current administration is doing.

But it's the cultural issues that have really hurt us in parts of the country, on the West Coast and the Northeast and these areas, the emphasis on what you call the social issues, everything from the war to abortion, gay rights. The landscape is changing underneath us with younger voters and ethnic voters, immigration issue.

We've got to remember that, within our coalition, it's the economic issues that are going to unite us at the end of the day. A cultural coalition, I think, is a loser for us over the long term.

There's certainly room for that in the party, and the cultural conservative base is part of it. But you're going to have to expand that if you want to be a majority. And I think the spending issues and the regulatory issues are ultimately what's going to unite the party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree with that?

REIHAN SALAM: I do. I think a fundamental problem, though, is that Barack Obama is very personally popular. It's not so much his ideology as he's a Teflon president not unlike Ronald Reagan. And I think that people are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

That means that he's capable of shifting the political discussion to the left. And Republicans need to recognize that we need to cultivate a lot of figures who can connect with the public the way that he can. And also we need energetic governors who are pushing solutions for those working and out-of-work Americans that Katon Dawson was talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Andy Kohut, when you ask the American people who they see as leading the Republican Party, what do they say?

ANDREW KOHUT: No one. No individual gets mentioned by more than 6 percent or 7 percent as a leader of the Republican Party. There is not a single well-known Republican who is popular. President Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, even Newt Gingrich are not popular people. The Republicans don't have a popular front person to go up against Obama, who is enormously personally popular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Davis, who is best equipped now to carry the message for the party?

TOM DAVIS: It's going to be fought out over the next four years in state governments. The problem with Washington, your congressional leaders are so wedded to their caucuses that elect them that tend to be well to the right of the center, and they have to be responsive.

I might add, same for the congressional leadership on the Democratic side, very unpopular when you look at the polls. These solutions and the face of the party is going to come from outside of Washington, in my judgment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, thank you all for joining us, Katon Dawson in South Carolina, Tom Davis here in Washington, along with Andy Kohut and Reihan Salam. Thank you all.