Friday, November 10, 2006

Republicans, suddenly a minority in both houses of Congress and led by an unpopular president, need to restore their image as the party of small government but at the same time avoid the image of blind obstructionism, party leaders and analysts said yesterday.

“We have to recognize that this was a defeat for Republicans, not for conservatives,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times yesterday.

There is hope to advance a conservative agenda, Mr. Gingrich said, if House Republicans can find allies among conservative Democrats.

“The balance of power in the House is now 50-plus blue-dog [conservative] Democrats,” he said.

It won’t be easy for Republicans to recover from Tuesday’s defeat, because the party has “completely lost its brand as the party of limited government and low spending,” said former Rep. Pat Toomey, president of the conservative Club for Growth.

A poll of 15 key congressional districts by the Club for Growth showed voters now think “Democrats, not Republicans, are the party of smaller government,” Mr. Toomey said.

By a 66 percent to 43 percent margin, voters think the “GOP used to be the party of economic growth, fiscal discipline and limited government, but in recent years, too many Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders that they used to oppose,” the poll found.

“The American people sent a very important message to both parties and particularly to my party,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told reporters yesterday at a luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “I think we’ve got to listen to that message. I think we’ve got to recommit ourselves to being the party of conservative reform.”

One alumnus of the Gingrich-led 1994 “Republican Revolution” blamed Tuesday’s loss on the Bush administration.

“The Republican Party … needs to recognize that the Bush administration was largely the architect of its defeat, and that the party can no longer afford to play by yesterday’s playbook,” said former Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican.

According to the “old, time-worn playbook, a sitting Republican president is the head of the party and his team can pick party leaders and dictate the agenda,” said Mr. Barr, who warned that “if the party follows that paradigm, it will slip further into minority status.”

Republicans “must break with the White House,” chart their own course “with new, younger, bolder leadership” and provide “a true alternative” to Democrats, Mr. Barr said.

However, one House Republican said, the need to show legislative accomplishments means that Republicans will have to cooperate with the new Democratic leadership — even at the risk of alienating conservatives such as Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and other opponents of an immigrant guest-worker program.

“There will have to be a guest-worker program of some kind and something that is not a full amnesty,” said Rep. Ralph M. Hall, Texas Republican. “That will probably lose the Tancredo faction.”

Mr. Hall predicted that Mr. Tancredo “is a smart man and will find a way” to make such a compromise work.

But some warn that bipartisan cooperation can be a trap.

“It is really important that the GOP not allow itself to be drawn into the ‘can’t-we-all-get-along’ role that the liberal pundits and media will now hammer the GOP minority to play,” said elections lawyer Cleta Mitchell, a conservative Republican.

She noted that Democrats won on Tuesday after successfully blocking much of the Republican agenda. “The lesson from the Democrats may well be that getting nothing done is better than doing the things that your base opposes,” Mrs. Mitchell said.

Unifying Republicans could prove a difficult challenge, given a recent outburst of finger-pointing within the party. Former Rep. Dick Armey, Texas Republican, who has publicly blamed Christian conservatives for the party’s declining fortunes, yesterday wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal excoriating congressional leaders who he said had attempted “to rally their political base on wedge issues like illegal immigration and gay marriage,” and had thereby “alienated independents.”

Mr. Armey’s criticism — and similar comments by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican — angered Focus on the Family Chairman James C. Dobson.

Republicans this year failed to motivate the “values voters” who helped Mr. Bush claim victory in 2004, said Mr. Dobson, who warned that some politicians are attempting to make social conservatives the scapegoats for Republican failures.

“The unfortunate thing is that Republican leaders still don’t appear to get it,” said Mr. Dobson, quoting Mr. Specter’s Wednesday comments that the election results represented a “seismic earthquake” and advising Republicans to become “a lot more progressive and a lot less ideological.”

Mr. Dobson said Mr. Armey “can’t be serious” in urging Republicans to repudiate Christian conservatives.

“Someone should tell him that without the support of that specific constituency, John Kerry would be president and the Republicans would have fallen into a black hole in ‘04,” said Mr. Dobson, who warned that the Republican Party’s “big tent” could “turn into a three-ring circus.”

Compounding the Republican Party’s problem is the looming 2008 presidential campaign, said Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican.

Republicans “have a great challenge in trying to present a unified message, trying to bring House, Senate and presidential candidates all onto the same page,” said Mr. Istook, who was defeated Tuesday in his campaign for governor of Oklahoma. “Unless the GOP nominee becomes apparent early, there will be a struggle to gain this unity.”

Noting the defeat of Virginia Sen. George Allen, once viewed by conservatives as a favorite for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Istook asked, “Do we have a contender with credentials that can bring this conservative unity? Certainly not [former New York Mayor Rudolph W.] Giuliani or [Arizona Sen. John] McCain. This is why I say that it’s overly optimistic to think that this is just a two-year setback that will spark an immediate rebound by the conservative movement.”

• Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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