In the 2012 Republican presidential race, love apparently means always having to say you’re sorry.
On an array of issues, the field of GOP contenders is facing enormous pressure from an ascendant conservative base to renounce earlier positions that challenged orthodoxy on the right. Their response to those demands could cast a big shadow over not only next year’s Republican primary but also the general-election contest against President Obama.
The emergence of these pressures testifies to a decisive shift in the GOP’s balance of power. The ideas now drawing the most fire from conservative activists—including support for a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, a mandate on individuals to purchase health insurance, and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants—all flowered in Republican circles during the middle years of George W. Bush’s presidency, especially among governors.
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In different ways, each of these proposals embodied the common belief that Republicans had to broaden their message beyond a conventional conservative argument focused almost exclusively on reducing government spending, taxes, and regulation. Intellectually, these initiatives reflected an impulse to redefine conservatism in ways that accepted a role for government in empowering individuals or promoting market-based solutions. Politically, they reflected the belief that to build a lasting majority, Republicans needed to attract more minority voters, especially Hispanics, and to loosen the Democratic hold on blue states by reclaiming more suburban independents.
At varying points, this tendency operated under different names, including “compassionate conservatism” and “national greatness conservatism.” But the shared belief “was the sense that the Republican Party, in order to revitalize itself, needed to … show that it had modernized,” said Pete Wehner, who directed the Office of Strategic Initiatives in Bush’s White House.
Behind that conviction, Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress in 2003 created an entitlement by establishing the Medicare prescription drug benefit. In 2006, with Bush’s support, 23 GOP senators voted with 39 Democrats to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
In the states, this instinct produced health care reform proposals from Govs. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California that centered on an individual mandate, as well as initiatives from many GOP governors to promote alternative energy and to impose mandatory limits on the carbon emissions linked to global climate change. Republican governors played driving roles in creating regional multistate alliances to limit carbon emissions in the Midwest (Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota); the Northeast (George Pataki in New York); and the West (Jon Huntsman in Utah and Schwarzenegger). Huntsman joined then-Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona in 2006 to produce a bipartisan Western governors’ plan that favored legalization over deportation for illegal immigrants.
Many hard-core conservatives always bristled at these initiatives. But in those years, they lacked the leverage to entirely suppress them. Now, though, the party’s most conservative elements have clearly regained the upper hand. The tipping point was the election of Barack Obama and his pursuit of an agenda that significantly expanded Washington’s reach across many fronts. His initiatives produced a powerful back-to-basics reaction among Republicans.
The result has been to revert the party’s message toward one focused almost solely on shrinking government. “Obama, by the way he governed, shifted the debate into a much more traditional Democratic-Republican divide over the role of government,” notes Wehner, now a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “That’s pushed to the side or capsized these other issues.”
That dynamic has left the 2012 GOP contenders facing multiplying demands to abandon and apologize for positions they took in what now looks like a brief period of Republican glasnost.
Pawlenty has already apologized for imposing carbon limits in Minnesota but hasn’t yet renounced his parallel support for requiring utilities to generate more of their power from renewable sources, which some conservatives have also demanded. Huntsman, as he considers the race, has abandoned his previous climate policies but not yet walked back his tilt toward legalization for illegal immigrants. Romney renounced his favorable comments about legalizing undocumented immigrants (as well as his earlier backing of abortion rights) during his 2008 run, but he drew a surprisingly firm line this month by reaffirming his support for his health insurance mandate in Massachusetts. Newt Gingrich, who has faced similar complaints about his earlier support for an individual mandate and efforts to control carbon emissions, hasn’t fully tossed aside either.
These maelstroms leave the candidates without many good options. To dig in behind earlier positions promises unending collisions with conservatives (as Romney has now done on health care). But abandoning too many positions under pressure could open the eventual nominee to effective attacks from Democrats. “If these candidates are now sliding back on things they once believed, it raises questions about whether they can be a strong leader,” says Bill Burton, the former deputy White House press secretary who is heading an independent Democratic campaign effort for 2012. If voters agree, the 2012 Republicans may feel sorry later for saying sorry so often now.
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This article appears in the May 21, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.