Republicans Need to Think for Themselves, Even in Election Years

Jill Lawrence

How difficult is it to be a Republican in 2013? About as tough as being President Obama, stymied by a party whose chief uniting principle often can be summarized as opposing what he supports. It would be a lot easier if GOP politicians could stop trying to spot potential purer-than-thou primary opponents over their right shoulders.

The truth is, most of their districts are conservative and there really are primary opponents lurking everywhere, waiting to challenge anyone who deviates too often from conservative orthodoxy. But here’s the dilemma: Individual Republicans may well save their jobs and interest-group ratings if they keep changing course under pressure from the right. But they will also be helping to maintain the gulf between their party and public opinion on issues ranging from immigration and guns to abortion, gay rights, and the best way to tame the nation’s soaring debt.

So far we’ve seen two paths in election years. The John McCain-Orrin Hatch model is to shy away from controversial positions in order to crush a primary opponent. Then there’s the model pioneered by Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. He took on Grover Norquist and the GOP’s no-tax absolutism, and decided to retire rather than face a primary challenger next year.

Both courses underscore the "self-empretzelment," as Time’s Joe Klein so memorably christened it, needed to fit into the shrinking box that is today’s GOP. Mitt Romney offered up a live example on Fox News Sunday in his first public reflections on his presidential campaign. He regrets nothing, he said--not his immigration policy of making life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they will self-deport; not rejecting a theoretical fiscal deal of $10 in spending cuts to every $1 in tax increases.

On the other hand, Romney went on to describe that tax-and-spending stance as a hedge against accusations of flip-flopping and a potential starting point for negotiations. As for immigration, well, he said he’s still personally a hard-liner but argued that “to finally resolve this issue is going to require people of differing views to come together and see if there could be some compromise or some common ground. And I hope that happens. I believe that will happen.”

In other words, let some other dudes do it.

The pressure on those other dudes, whether they are looking at House, Senate, or presidential races, is enormous. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a top White House hopeful, is working with senators in both parties to craft an immigration compromise--but some on the hard right say (wish?) that won’t last long. “Prediction: Rubio will bail out of the Amnesty Eight. Amnesty is toxic to his 2016 hopes,” Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the faith-based American Family Association, tweeted Sunday. (His group says it has been “on the frontlines of America’s culture war” since 1977).

McCain, R-Ariz., is now on the third leg of a thankless immigration journey. He took white heat from constituents during the Bush administration for his lead role in crafting comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Then, faced with a tea-party primary rival in 2010, he backed off and went into “complete the danged fence” mode. Naturally, the shift drew withering critiques from reform advocates and pundits on hypocrisy watch. (How defensive was he back then? Plenty.)

Now McCain is back to trying to work out a compromise, and his constituents are once again mad as hell. Some told him at recent town-hall meetings that they want all 11 million undocumented immigrants deported. They want a fence at the border, and an army, too. “The only thing that stops ‘em, I’m afraid to say, and it’s too damn bad, but is a gun,” one man said. “That’s all that’ll stop 'em.”

Meanwhile, over in the House, anyone considering compromises on fiscal issues can look forward to an exercise in participatory democracy: A Club for Growth website called Primary My Congressman features nine Republicans characterized as “bottom of the barrel” on tax and spending issues. And these nine are just a start. “This website will provide an avenue for the general public to recommend primary challengers to those members and any other member they choose. We’ve already received hundreds of submissions and ideas!” club President Chris Chocola said in an e-mail Friday to supporters (boldface is his).

What will it take for Republicans to stand their ground against fellow Republicans? The determination to be true to themselves and the willingness to risk their jobs.

Politicians actually do take these types of risks. Former Democratic Reps. Marjorie Margolies and Karen Shepherd were two of the lawmakers who lost their seats after voting for Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget that raised taxes. They told me a couple of years ago that they don’t regret it and would like to spread the message that there is life after Congress. Years later, Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah lost his seat after supporting the Troubled Asset Relief Program--but says he wouldn’t change that vote. Former Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, alienated both parties and lost in 2010 after voting for TARP and Obama’s stimulus plan, but he says he sticks by both votes. He was among many House Democrats who lost that year, most of whom had also voted for Obama’s health care law--a party priority for more than a half-century.

It’s not a given that Republicans will lose if they stay the course. Those who are well funded, strong in their convictions, and persuasive on the stump might just prevail. Defiance might be worth a try, since the stakes are kind of big: constructive governance and the future of the Republican Party.