Conservatives say get back to basics


The Nation Votes 2006

November 09, 2006|By Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten | Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Awaking to the dismal reality of widespread defeat, more than 100 of the conservative movement's most ardent leaders gathered as they have every Wednesday for more than a decade in a downtown conference room to discuss strategy.

And, although they had lost control of the House, where Newt Gingrich had launched the "Republican Revolution" 12 years ago, they showed few signs of despair.

Instead, speaker after speaker declared that voters had not rejected conservative ideas, but had merely rejected Republican Party leaders who strayed from the movement's basic values.

"There was no ideological rejection in this election," said Richard Lessner, a former executive director of the American Conservative Union, pointing out that the GOP's casualties spanned the spectrum from stalwart conservatives such as Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to moderates such as Rhode Island's Sen. Lincoln Chafee.

"This was about the Republican Party not behaving like Republicans," Lessner said. "And the voters gave the party a timeout and said go stand in the corner."

On a day that President Bush and many analysts said the voters appeared to be demanding an end to the hard-line politics of division, these conservative insiders insisted they could return to power as early as 2008 by hewing closer to their traditional course.

The group, which has met regularly in the second-floor conference room of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, represented a broad spectrum of conservative business, political and religious organizations. It has functioned as a political nerve center for the movement, coming together shortly after President Clinton's 1992 victory seemed to end the Reagan revolution of the 1980s

What is needed now, participants in yesterday's session said, was reinforcing their principles of cutting taxes and spending while promoting social causes such as fighting abortion and gay marriage.

The star guest yesterday was the Republican National Committee's chairman, Ken Mehlman, who reminded participants that, after losing the White House to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, the movement turned its losses into the 1994 takeover of Congress.

"We have a long history as a movement, if you think about it, of using our difficult election outcomes to make ourselves better," Mehlman said. "The fact is we do need to do better, and I think we need to look at it as a big opportunity as a party and a cause to return to our reformist approach and our reformist principles."

An RNC memo laying out talking points for conservative pundits, bloggers and other supporters and obtained by The Times underscored that message, calling for the party to "refocus conservative principles of less government, lower taxes, less regulation, strong national defense, judicial restraint, and fiscal conservatism."

The memo lauded a "strong party and a philosophy that works," but added: "We just have to recommit ourselves to better serving the American people."

At the same time, GOP leaders made clear where they thought the party had strayed from its principles. And their criticisms underscored some long-simmering tensions within the conservative movement that foreshadowed the GOP losses - and that will now define the soul-searching some activists are going through as they plot a 2008 comeback.

Several participants said the growth of government over the past 12 years - accelerated under the Bush presidency - had discouraged traditional supporters who have long viewed the Republicans as the party of limited government.

They said money had been wasted on so-called budget earmarks for pet projects that Bush failed to veto and White House-backed programs such as the 2003 Medicare prescription drug plan.

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write for the Los Angeles Times.

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