Prominent Republicans see no evidence that their party's electoral successes have advanced the cause of limited government and moral governance.
"Today, our party's leaders act like thermometers measuring the temperature of the electorate. We need to be the thermostats and set the temperature," said Rob McCoy, pastor of Calvary Chapel, a few minutes' drive from the Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif.
For Republicans like Mr. McCoy, who is running for a state Assembly seat, the national party has racked up decades of compromises that have led to relentless government expansion, ever-increasing spending growth, continually mounting national debt and growing intrusiveness into the private lives of Americans.
From her George Mason University's Mercatus Center office in Arlington, Va., economist Veronique de Rugy looks at the objective evidence of the Republican Party's effect on limiting government.
"Every president has spent more total real dollars in his last budget than in his first," she said, noting that Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson increased spending by 38 percent, but George W. Bush, twice elected on a conservative Republican platform, increased spending by 53 percent during his presidency.
"Even Reagan increased total spending by 22 percent" over President Carter, she says on her website.
Similar disappointments are nagging at other conservatives as an expected 10,000 of them — nearly half college age — prepare to descend on Washington for the 41st annual Conservative Political Action Conference this week at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.
As always, the big question at CPAC will be over the best tactics to advance conservative ideas — specifically how often, if ever, to engage in principled but lost causes such as the filibusters that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and fellow conservatives have launched, against the wishes of the GOP's more center-right leadership in and out of Congress.
Limited-government warriors such as Helen Van Etten, chief audiologist for the Topeka, Kan., school district, strongly backs Mr. Cruz and his allies. She said these conservatives are willing to risk losing legislative battles — and even their own re-election races — to mount high-profile challenges to what they see as big-government advocacy from the national news and entertainment media.
Mrs. Van Etten, an elected Republican National Committee member, rejects the idea that the temperature setters are interested only in blocking action in Washington.
The problem, she said from her Topeka office, is not one of action versus inaction, but that "Republicans [are] being asked to compromise. That implies that we're meeting the Democrats in the middle. What Republicans are being asked to do is capitulate completely and just give the Democrats everything they want."
The temperature setters refuse to grant the temperature takers an exclusive franchise on the pragmatic electoral concerns. Oklahoma veterinarian and RNC member Carolyn McLarty contended that the hard-liners' tactics "have strengthened the base by offering a glimmer of hope that some in Congress have the guts and grit to make a difference."
Standing fast on principle to block bad legislation no matter the outcome doesn't automatically conflict with pragmatic goals, said Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker. He insists the Ted Cruz-style filibusters and filibuster threats were not lost causes but rather "much-needed wind in the sails of conservatives."
Far from voter backlash that the thermometer faction so fears, Missouri Republican Party Chairman Ed Martin said, "Our voters are glad someone is standing up to fight. It is better to fight even when you know you'll probably lose, because that way our elected Republicans show they take their limited-government promises to voters seriously and are at least taking risks to achieve change."
It's not that Republicans whom conservatives deride as "Republicans in name only" don't talk and vote conservatively. Many of the House Republican leaders whom conservatives consider to be too moderate have strong conservative voting records.
Few debates are surer to grow into heated arguments than betting that House Speaker John A. Boehner, who last year narrowly won a second term as speaker, has a liberal record. In fact, the Ohio Republican had a 90 percent American Conservative Union lifetime voting rating before he became speaker. The ACU gives a 96 rating to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and a 94 rating to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican facing a fierce tea party challenge in his primary race this year, has a 90 percent ACU lifetime rating. The Senate's second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, can boast of a 93 ACU voting score.
Their critics, however, say it's on unrated procedural votes and inside maneuvering that the McConnells and Cornyns differ from Mr. Cruz and allies such as Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican. Those differences lead to compromises that, to Republicans like Mrs. Van Etten, give everything to Democrats.
"Republicans are taking a big risk doing that because it can turn off their base and cause [voters] to stay home this fall," she said.
Not everyone agrees with the hard line against compromise.
Lynn A. Stout, a distinguished law and business professor at Cornell University, argues that Republicans take even bigger risks by not compromising at tactically important times, even if many in the party base perceive capitulation.
From her Ithaca, N.Y., office, Ms. Stout said "some compromise is necessary to prevent Republicans from losing influence, especially with young voters." She said polls generally show that using lost-cause filibusters such as Mr. Cruz's attempt to defund Obamacare last fall is "a damaging strategy to Republicans."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, has accused Mr. Cruz of instigating last year's partial government shutdown and called the Texan "crazy."
Thermostat Republicans note that Mr. McCain and other critics of the Cruz filibuster failed to put any of the blame for the shutdown on Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats by rejecting bill after bill to carry on government operations during the standoff.
Mitt Romney, the party's presidential nominee in 2012, pointedly left Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul off the list in November when he was asked to list the best available Republicans to head the ticket in 2016.
Of two minds
Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who served as RNC chairman and now heads the Free Congress Foundation, said his own career shows the conflicting impulses of thermostat versus thermometer politics.
Mr. Gilmore has played the Republican thermostat in his political career by standing up to President George W. Bush's administration, for example, on foreign interventionism and government surveillance programs.
But Mr. Gilmore is of two minds on mounting hopeless fights in Congress over a principle. He faults Mr. Cruz, Mr. Paul and their allies for their tactics last fall.
"The American people rejected the government shutdown as irresponsible," Mr. Gilmore said. "The need to climb back out of the hole Cruz and Paul put us in is the direct reason the GOP leadership postponed the substantive debate over the future of the nation."
But Mr. Gilmore also said the less-confrontational approach of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill "has pushed off the debate over the nation's future until after the 2014 elections."
He cited in particular the compromise spending plan fashioned by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, that conservatives have roundly criticized.
But to former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Kayne Robinson, Mr. Gilmore's claim that the government shutdown bloodied Republican noses misses the point.
"When a few Republicans like Cruz and Paul try to stop the march to socialized medicine, whether likely to succeed or not, at least they are lighting up the enemy and rallying the troops," said Mr. Robinson. "The result is a few leaders and ex-presidential candidates, apparently sore because they are off the air, attack those who are at least trying. The national media, of course, put ex-leaders back on the air."
At what is expected to be a raucous CPAC, the thermometer-thermostat tensions are likely to be on full display for the national media.
Despite the spotlight, Republicans like Iowa's Mr. Robinson insist that compromise on principles is a misguided strategy and that those who stand up for the party's values are unfairly maligned.
Ordinary Republicans "watch with a disbelief that turns to disdain as establishment Republicans try to personally destroy conservatives like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Steve King and Rand Paul for criticizing that same establishment," he said.
Making the CPAC gathering even more intriguing is that Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, normally a thermostat Republican and feared enforcer of the party's no-tax pledge has come down strongly with the Senate GOP leadership in the shutdown debate.
Mr. Cruz "said he would deliver Democratic votes and he didn't. He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered off," Mr. Norquist said.
More recently, Mr. McConnell's allies hammered Mr. Cruz for seeking a filibuster on a "clean" bill to raise the federal debt ceiling, without extracting a single spending cut from Mr. Obama. The parliamentary move forced Mr. McConnell, Mr. Cornyn and a handful of other Republican senators to cast politically damaging votes to shut off debate, even though all 45 Republican senators voted against the measure to raise the debt ceiling.
An unrepentant Mr. Cruz said he had made his point that compromising with Democrats by giving everything they want is not what people sent Republicans to Washington to do.
"Just about every American understands that we can't keep going the way we're going. We're bankrupting the country. It's irresponsible," he said. "Today was a classic victory for Washington establishment interests, and the people who lost today are the American people."
What most bugs thermostat Republicans is that their party seems to have a fatally steep learning curve.
From violating no-tax pledges to failing to curb the growth of government, "compromising on principle keeps on costing Republicans," said Pastors and Pews founder David Lane, a Los Angeles-based conservative evangelical organizer. "Compromise cost them the White House in 1992. Reagan won re-election in 1984 with 49 states; [George W. Bush] needed the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 and Ohio in 2004."
What most bugs Mr. McCoy, he said, is that "19 people in a Wisconsin church started the Republican party to end slavery, their president got a bullet in the back of his head and 650,000 people died in the war that ended slavery. For the next 70 years, Republicans dominated the political landscape as the party of character because they lead the people."
Whether Mr. McCoy is right and the GOP has become a party led by followers — temperature takers — is the question CPAC was created to address.
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