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POLITICAL CONNECTIONS

The Conservative Tide

A party too narrow for Specter, Crist, and maybe Bennett will face a tough challenge building a majority coalition.

Republicans who say that President Obama's stimulus plan hasn't created any jobs must ignore not only the Congressional Budget Office (whose latest estimate put the total as high as 2.1 million) but also the more immediate examples of Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey.

Florida's Rubio and Pennsylvania's Toomey are gainfully employed through November as Republican Senate candidates. And each has that job largely because his principal GOP rival was ostracized in the party after endorsing Obama's plan. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter switched to the Democratic Party last year after concluding that he couldn't beat the staunchly conservative Toomey in a primary. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist last week abandoned the GOP primary for an independent Senate bid after reaching the same judgment about Rubio.

 

The GOP's rightward march could leave it on shaky ground with voters focused more on results than ideology.

The conservative tide inside the GOP that lifted Rubio and Toomey shows no sign of cresting. On May 8, Sen. Robert Bennett faces a strong risk of being denied renomination by the Utah GOP convention. Bennett is hardly a moderate, but conservative activists have mobilized against him because of his vote for the 2008 financial bailout bill and his authorship of bipartisan health reform legislation that included an individual mandate.

Many analysts doubt that Bennett will attract enough convention support to qualify for the primary. Meanwhile, just across the border, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, is struggling in his re-election bid against an energetic primary challenge from conservative former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

 

In today's hyperpartisan, quasi-parliamentary politics, demands for ideological purity and party loyalty are growing on both sides: Centrist Sen. Blanche Lincoln is facing a serious threat in Arkansas's Democratic primary. But these forces are barking loudest inside the GOP -- as is evident in everything from congressional Republicans' united vote against Obama's health plan to the support that all but one Republican in the Arizona Legislature gave to their state's confrontational new immigration law. The possibility that Republicans might capture U.S. Senate seats in Illinois and Delaware this fall with moderate nominees shades, but doesn't alter, the picture of a party betting that the road to recovery begins with a hard right turn.

So far, there's little evidence that course is hurting the GOP's prospects in the 2010 election. The great political surprise of Obama's presidency is that amid these hard times, the electorate has directed its frustration less against Big Business (though it is hardly popular) than against Big Government, especially as Obama has aggressively expanded Washington's reach in response to the economic crisis.

While racial minorities largely embrace Obama's direction, polls consistently show most whites recoiling. In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor national survey, released on May 7, just 36 percent of white respondents said that Obama's economic agenda prevented an even deeper downturn. A majority, 53 percent, instead said that it bloated the federal debt without doing much good. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie had it right, at least in terms of the white electorate, when he insisted this week that the public is "very worried that government has grown beyond its responsible limits."

The questions for the GOP, though, are how much of that reaction is a permanent ideological rejection of Obama's agenda, and how much is temporary disappointment that it has not yet produced more results. In the Heartland Monitor poll, just one-third of adults endorsed the conservative notion that government is more the problem than the solution to our economic difficulties; another third backed the liberal conviction that government must play an active role in policing the marketplace. The decisive remainder, about three in 10, said they were open to an activist government but weren't convinced that it could deliver results that improve their lives. Even among white respondents, just two-fifths picked the flatly anti-government option.

 

Those findings suggest that if the budding economic recovery accelerates, the GOP's rightward march could leave it on shaky ground with voters focused more on results than ideology. It's possible such a dynamic could help Democrats in November (especially in affluent districts), but it's more likely to lift Obama in 2012. The president has almost certainly overestimated the public's tolerance for government activism and will probably need to pivot toward reforming and streamlining Washington. But however well Republicans perform in 2010, a party too narrow for Specter, Crist, and maybe Bennett will face a tough challenge building a presidential majority coalition in 2012, when economic distress could be easing and the electorate swelling with more young people and minorities.

This article appears in the May 8, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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