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Tea Party Ideology Driving a Wedge in Republican Party Politics

July 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And here now with a P.S. to that report is the newest member of our “NewsHour” team, political editor David Chalian, who joined us from ABC News. He will be in charge of our political coverage here on the broadcast, as well as online.

Welcome to the family, David.

DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you very much for having me, Jim. Glad to be here.

JIM LEHRER: Well, look, just following up here on Judy’s report, first of all, fit the — Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican Party’s problems into this, or does it fit?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, it fits in this way.

Michael Steele’s — other — other than raising money, Michael Steele’s mission one is to, for the last year now, to harness this energy in the Tea Party movement, the conservative wing of the party, without disaffecting the folks in the middle that you need to win in order to become a majority party.

But you just alluded to the controversies. Michael Steele’s problem is, he can’t get out of his own way. And this latest controversy about his remarks about the Afghanistan war and the fact that he took a position that is not like any Republican right now, saying that basically was not in favor of the Obama policy in Afghanistan, he had to walk that back, because that’s not at all the position his party is in.

Again, he steps on his own messaging, and therefore this mission of harnessing that Tea Party energy gets put to the side because he becomes a distraction to the conversation.

JIM LEHRER: So, he’s not involved in this split, this divide, right?

DAVID CHALIAN: He’s not. He’s trying very hard to bring those two sides together into a winning coalition. He hasn’t sort of aligned himself with one side or the other.

But with all of these gaffes, if you will, from Michael Steele, he’s almost — Jim, he’s almost making himself irrelevant right now. I mean, the other Republican campaign committees in charge of winning House seats and Senate seats and governor’s races, they are raising money basically by telling donors, don’t give to the RNC and Michael Steele. He keeps getting into trouble. And give it to us.

And, so, they’re sort of sidelining him from this effort.

JIM LEHRER: Are there recognized national spokespersons for both of these wings that we have just been talking — that Judy has just been reporting, Jim DeMint on one side? Now, of course, Bob Bennett, he’s about to leave the Senate, but how — who are the leaders of these two groups?

DAVID CHALIAN: Right.

Well, Jim DeMint is certainly a leader of this one side. I mean, he got behind Marco Rubio, as Judy mentioned, in Florida in that Senate race real early. And it drove Charlie Crist from the party, who is now running as an independent.

On the establishment side, it’s tough to tell. I mean, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are certainly the establishment leaders in Congress, and, therefore, they sort of have to set the tone and have to appeal to both factions in here.

I don’t know that the establishment side has necessarily one leader — but, certainly, any of the moderates in the Senate, the few that are left, would fit into that wing of the party.

But the Jim DeMints and, of course, Sarah Palin, who is very active with the Tea Party movement, one — I spoke to one senior Republican strategist in the party today, Jim, and he said, listen, those guys, they make all the noise, they get all the attention, they get on all the shows. They don’t necessarily represent as large of a swathe in the party as the attention they get may make many believe.

JIM LEHRER: So, the big — the big struggle, the big mission is going to be to put all the Republicans back together when Humpty Dumpty — if the — well, never mind that analogy — but…

JIM LEHRER: … anyhow, put them back together, right, come November?

DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt about it.

And Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are doing all they can to help that effort, because they really do unify around opposition to the president’s agenda and to the speaker’s agenda in the House.

This is going to be a tough, terrible year for the Democrats. There’s no doubt about that. And this divide, I don’t think, will hamper that too much for Republicans. But, in certain key races, like you saw in the Kentucky Senate race, the Nevada Senate race, these are races Democrats didn’t even think they would be in. And the fact that these Tea Party candidates are in there now, Democrats are sort of licking their chops that maybe it won’t be quite as bad.

But, when they get — if the Republicans do get in the majority, Jim, when they get to the governing issue — and you heard Bob Bennett talk about that in the piece — then this obstacle presents itself in even greater fashion, of course.

One Republican said to me, that’s a problem they would love to have after November.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

Well, when Senator DeMint says, hey, wait a minute, this isn’t really Republicans and Democrats, this is not a partisan thing, this is bigger than that, and they’re — is that just talk?

DAVID CHALIAN: I don’t think it’s just talk in this one piece. What he’s really talking about there is how much the American electorate overall is concerned this year about deficit and debts.

And that is true. That cuts across party lines. No doubt, Republicans and conservatives care more. But I think what Jim DeMint is getting at is that there is a feeling — and all Republicans, establishment, Tea Party, all kinds of Republicans say this — that they have gotten away from those core principles of reining in the spending.

And, so, I think that is — that principle that Jim DeMint is talking about does sort of go beyond party labeling.

JIM LEHRER: And there’s also no question, is there, that there is anger among the populace for all kinds people who have lost jobs, people who have lost homes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera? Whether it’s ideological or not, there’s anger?

DAVID CHALIAN: There’s no doubt about it.

And the big question that we’re going to keep looking at going forward into the fall is, how much of a hearing will Obama and the Democrats running on the ballot this year get from the American public if the economy doesn’t improve much? Will they even be open to their side of the argument to try to make this a comparative election?

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, David.

And, again, welcome. We look forward to your future wisdom and wit as we go forward. Thank you.

DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.