frank_talk (2006-47)

Can Republicans Learn?

Even tough love doesn’t deliver a strong enough message

by Frank Cagle

The national media is obsessed with the idea that the Republican Party consists of the Religious Right, and turning them out has won two presidential elections and kept the Republicans in power for a decade. It is an understandable belief—it appears that President Bush and Karl Rove, a.k.a. “turd blossom,” believe it as well. It is certainly true the evangelical vote is an important pole holding up the big tent constructed by Ronald Reagan.

But they do not represent the majority of the party. In Tennessee I think you can look to Ed Bryant’s mid-30-percent vote in the Republican primary as a benchmark of the evangelical vote in the state.

The mid-term election and the votes that turned the Congress over to the Democrats are revolution. But it is a revolution in which the fiscal conservatives, libertarians and national defense independent voters, who have been voting Republican, repudiated the party of corruption, arrogance and betrayal. The Republican effort to make elections turn on gay marriage and abortion finally failed because the party lost the independents: those who might agree or not with evangelicals on gay marriage and abortion, but have other priorities as voters.

There was simply no reason for conservatives to think the Republican Party represents their values any longer. It has become apparent that Bush and his gang of thieves in charge of the House of Representatives did not even understand why they were trusted with the reins of government in the first place.

Given the “thumpin’” the Republicans got in the mid-term elections, is there any indication the Republicans now understand the problem? Will they return to the principles of 1994 and get back on the road to national leadership?

Tax cuts are nice. We all like the idea of paying less in taxes. But to a fiscal conservative it isn’t about saving a couple of hundred bucks. To a fiscal conservative, cutting taxes is about turning off fuel for big government expansion. You cut taxes so the government will be less intrusive in your life. (Go back and read Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman’s obituaries from last week, then buy some of his books.)

Throughout his campaigns and his time in office, Bush has regularly gathered in hotel conference rooms with people that can afford a $10,000 ticket to the event. I once talked with a thoughtful person who has attended these events. He wondered whether Bush ever had any contact with or heard from anyone not “just like us.”

Is it any wonder Bush and these friends think tax cuts are about saving them money rather than having a philosophical basis? So Bush and the congressional Republicans were all about cutting taxes—and growing the size and intrusiveness of government at the same time. Increase debt while strangling the ability to repay it: the worst of both worlds.

I was interviewed by a Boston reporter before the election who asked about the most pressing issues in Tennessee. I suggested illegal immigration as a major issue. The reporter was puzzled. It might be an issue in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, but in Tennessee? I suggested the reporter needed to get out more. It is an issue in every Southern state, it is an issue in Iowa, and it is an issue in Wisconsin. It is an issue wherever entire industries are being taken over by immigrant workers, whether it is the meat packers in Iowa or the construction industry in Tennessee.

The test for whether the Republicans will have returned to sanity before the 2008 elections will be a new immigration bill. If Bush and the House Democrats get together and pass an amnesty bill that legalizes the creation of second-class citizens (excuse me, guest workers), you may see a strong third-party movement erupt in 2008. Remember what Ross Perot did to the Republican Party in 1992? Perot elected Bill Clinton. Congressman Tom Tancredo, from Colorado, could elect Hillary Clinton.

Conservatives stayed with the Republicans longer than they might have because of the war. They didn’t trust John Kerry or the Democrats on national defense. There is a growing feeling, however, that the ineptness the Republicans demonstrated in handling the Katrina crisis is showing up in the prosecution of the war in Iraq. It appears the Republicans are going to bail on Iraq as soon as the Baker Commission gives them cover.

Last week the Republicans went back to the future by electing the House and Senate leadership that has been running things for years. Dennie Hastert and Tom DeLay are gone, but their House lieutenants have taken over. The Senate has brought back Trent Lott.

If the Democrats can keep the crazies in the closet and have some adults step up and recognize that the country is center-right, they have an opportunity to stay in power. It doesn’t appear the Republicans can learn, even after the administration of tough love.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .