WASHINGTON -- Nine months after a second consecutive failure to win the White House forced calls for introspection and the need to address the country’s racial and ethnic changes, Republicans are torn by a series of crosscurrents.
The tea party, not long ago written off as a dying fad, is resurgent and pressing its all-or-nothing ideological purity against emerging signs of pragmatism — a clash captured last week at a town hall in North Carolina.
An activist asked Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte if he would join an effort to force a government shutdown if Obamacare is not stripped of funding.
“Would you like to hear a thoughtful answer?” replied Pittenger, who has joined repeated attempts to derail the law.
“I want yes or no.”
“No,” Pittenger said, explaining the brinkmanship would fizzle in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“It doesn’t matter,” a woman fired back. “We need to show the American people we stand for conservative values.”
Amid a rising libertarian challenge to foreign policy hawks and disagreement on a range of issues, from immigration reform to climate change, Republican voters are split on whether the party should get more conservative or more moderate.
“The GOP is like a barge that is having tugboats push on it from all directions,” said Jamie Miller, a Republican strategist in Florida. “There’s not one super apparent way forward and that’s the problem.”
Republican leaders fear the lack of focus — and a favorable GOP climate in the upcoming midterm elections — could mean lessons from 2012 are ignored.
Sen. Marco Rubio embodies the opposing forces.
The Florida Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate helped write the Senate’s immigration reform bill and got scorched by conservatives, not just for working on the legislation but for working with Democrats. Rubio is now helping lead the government shutdown threat, a move popular among the tea party groups he turned off on immigration but deemed reckless by mainstream Republicans.
“When do you realize that your stupidity is getting in the way of conservatives winning national elections?” Republican commentator Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC last week, referring generally to the hard-liners Rubio was eager to align himself with. “You’ve lost a popular vote five out of six times in presidential races. Do you want to lose the next five or six? Do you really want Hillary Clinton to be president for the next eight years?”
Democrats have been here, losing a trio of presidential elections in the 1980s before Bill Clinton marched them back to the center in 1992. The GOP’s current challenge is exacerbated by demographics: White male voters are declining as a share of the electorate as minority groups rise. Mitt Romney won nearly 60 percent of the white vote last year and still lost as President Barack Obama maintained his coalition of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women and young voters.
The defeat prompted widespread calls for a new course. The Republican National Committee produced a 97-page report that laid out ways to move forward, from tackling immigration reform to going into communities “where Republicans do not normally go” to softening rhetoric toward gay voters.