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A food fight in the Big GOP Tent

I’m wondering if we haven’t just witnessed a turning point in politics. Years from now, when we look back on the “Gang of 14” deal, will we see it as the moment when the tide of conservative Republicanism crested?

I’m wondering if we haven’t just witnessed a turning point in politics. Years from now, when we look back on the “Gang of 14” deal, will we see it as the moment when the tide of conservative Republicanism crested?

American public life moves in cycles. A generation ago, Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater. But Goldwater’s 1964 crusade unleashed energy and ideas that inspired the New Right-Republican movement, which eventually reached its zenith in George W. Bush. He unified the libertarian, religious and corporate cadres of conservatism under his GOP banner.

Is the wheel turning again with another bold Texan in power? Hard to know, of course, and the Democrats won’t rise in some mere hydraulic fashion. They need to find vision, ideas and charismatic leaders, and none of them seem to be in great supply. But the line of products – call them “Bush Right” – suddenly is looking like what marketers call a “mature brand.” There are signs of age, strain and overreach, internally and externally.

A generation ago, voters turned against the Democrats for the excesses of their welfare-state, big-government thinking. Washington WASN’T the answer to everything.

But, voters may conclude, the Bible isn't either. They could turn against the GOP if they think the party is sacrificing the American tradition of pragmatism and respect for scientific progress – on, say, stem-cell research – in favor of religious fundamentalism, however sincere. Take a look at some of the key supporters of stem-cell research: Nancy Reagan, to name one – not to mention corporate executives who don’t want to see research money and energy drift away to other countries. Two religions are in collision, one of them secular and scientific, the other Biblical.

All that glitters is not gold
The external pressures on the GOP were mounting before the “Gang of 14” deal set off a food fight in the Big Tent.

To the extent the American economy is doing well, the president isn’t getting credit. Gasoline prices are one reason; the listless stock market (in which 60 million Americans are directly invested) is another. Bush pushed his entire pile of second-term chips to the middle of the Texas Hold ‘Em table when he bet on Social Security reform. He’s down to his undershirt on that one.

Then there's the health-care system, which is an incomprehensible and expensive mess. Voters may agree with the president that trial lawyers are one reason why, but Americans have a sense that the trouble is deeper than that, and the greed more endemic. Federal spending has run wild under GOP control of Congress – and voters (many of them Republicans) may be about to conclude that Republican leaders are using the war on terror as a cover story for profligacy.

Looking abroad, voters haven’t quite lost patience with the war in Iraq. But they have lost hope that it will lead to a sunny upland of peace and security, and their skepticism could turn into a “bring-them-home” crusade. 

Voters remain supportive of the president’s overall handing of the war on terror, but the rest of the Bush poll numbers must make for dismal reading at the White House: down on the economy, down on Social Security, down on the handling of the war in Iraq. He’s still in fat city compared with Republican-run Congress, which is posting the same kind of ratings the Democrats did when Newt Gingrich let his uprising back in 1994.

But it is the internal fissures that signal an aging and vulnerable political cycle.

Let he who is without sin ...
Inside the Big Tent, the “Gang of 14” deal pitted libertarians against the religionists, with Bush – who rose to power by taming both – caught in the middle. Faith-based conservatives felt betrayed by the bi-partisan deal and with good reason: they were betrayed.

But most of the GOP members of the Gang don’t feel guilty about it – they are (privately) delighted. Many other Republican senators, who stayed away from the filibuster-judges deal for various reasons, were relieved that rules of the Senate were saved and that religious conservatives were, in essence, told to shove it.

Bush and Karl Rove had hoped to change the rules before the big clash over the Supreme Court, clearing the way for the president to put forward a jurist considered solid by the religious right on their cluster of  crucial issues: abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, cloning and gay marriage. If I know Bush, he will go ahead and do so anyway. If he does, I bet that the Democrats in the Gang of 14 will declare the existence of the kind of “extraordinary circumstance” that will free them from their vow not to use the filibuster. And then the GOP moderates will have to declare themselves – and the war within the Republican Party will be on, big time.

Moderates will once again be asked – as they almost were this time – to vote to change the Senate rules. This is something they didn’t want to do, and, I bet, will never want to do. Here’s why. (Bear with me while I wade into some arcane Senate parliamentary detail; it matters.)

The moderate/traditionalists’ concern wasn’t solely or even primarily about diluting the 60-vote supermajority needed to end a filibuster. It was the WAY Sen. Bill Frist was proposing to do so. By long tradition, it takes a two-thirds vote – 67 senators – to alter a so-called “standing” rule in the Senate, such as the one about filibusters. Frist was proposing it by mere majority vote. 

That notion – that you could change long-standing rules by a mere majority vote – was viewed by Senate traditionalists, old and young, as more than unacceptable. It was outrageous to the likes of Republican Sen. John Warner, an old-fashioned Virginia Cavalier who thinks of the Senate as a Platonic redoubt of republicanism of the most ancient sense. He was the key to this deal. Something else about him: a hunt country patrician of the old school, Warner never has been a fan of (or a favorite of) Rev. Jerry Falwell and Dr. Pat Robertson, Virginia’s pulpit-based powers. He’s not their man.

Sen. George Allen is. Within hours of the deal, Allen had a hot-linked ad all over the web, seeking to harvest the anger of religious conservatives. He ran the GOP’s Senatorial campaign committee not so long ago – and, more important, is seriously thinking of making a run for the GOP nomination in 2008.

The first primary of '08
In fact, the race for the 2008 GOP nomination has begun, and it could well be a bloodletting.

Bush was able to lock up the nomination early in 2000; even then it wasn’t easy. But this time around there is no obvious successor to Bush, and the most visible candidate right now – Sen. John McCain – is with the president on Iraq, but very little else. He didn’t formally launch his candidacy this week, but that press conference of the Gang of 14 may as well have been it.

McCain is picking up where he left off after his centrist campaign was crushed by the Bush-connected religious right in South Carolina in 2000. McCain insists that it isn’t personal and, in one sense, he is correct. He’s not anti-Bush; he just wants to end what he sees as the faith-based right’s death-grip on the soul and sinews of the GOP.

But so far McCain is, well, just McCain. It remains to be seen if he represents a new GOP movement or just his old renegade self.

There could be other candidates in the race of the McCain stripe, among them Rudy Giuliani or even Condi Rice. But most contenders will seek the support of religious conservatives: Allen, Senate GOP Leader Frist (whom McCain outmaneuvered this week), Sen. Rick Santorum, maybe even Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Far from fearing the role of religious conservatives, they welcome them – and see the crusade for adherence to traditional biblical values as the saving grace of the party and the American family.

It’s the most wide-open Republican race in many years. Is that a good sign for the long-term health of the GOP? I’ll let you know in November – of 2008.