The shrinking GOP

Posted April 29, 2009, at 5:19 p.m.

The anger expressed by Republican leaders in Washington over longtime Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democratic Party is understandable, but misplaced. Rather than criticizing Sen. Specter for betraying the party, they should consider whether the party betrayed him — and other moderate Republican lawmakers.

Although she called Sen. Specter’s switch “devastating news” for the GOP, Sen. Olympia Snowe clearly indicated it was not a surprise.

“This problem has been manifesting itself with the devastating Republican losses in the last two elections and the decision of Sen. Jim Jeffords to leave the Party and become an Independent in 2001. Now today, we’ve lost yet another key moderate Republican voice from our party,” she said Tuesday when Sen. Specter announced he was now a Democrat. “Ultimately, we’re heading to having the smallest political tent in history, the way events have been unfolding. If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle.”

Her prescription is spot on, but sadly not likely to sway party leaders. Sens. Snowe and Specter, along with Sen. Susan Collins were the only three Republicans to vote for the $787 billion stimulus package earlier this year. For this, some members of Republican National Committee pressed for a resolution condemning the three senators.

Such actions may excite the base of the party, but do nothing to bring new ideas and members to the GOP, which it sorely needs.

The result is events like the recent riverside news conference where Maine Republicans lamented that their message is not being heard.

They noted, for example, that the strong support for a referendum to repeal a tax on beer and soda to fund Dirigo Health was hard to square with the fact that, during the same election, voters elected bigger Democratic majorities to both the Maine and U.S. House and Senate, along with a Demo-cratic president.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Republican message is not being heard, but more likely is a sign that the Republican message has been muddied by recent decisions.

George W. Bush, for example, campaigned as a fiscal conservative, yet added to the federal deficit at a greater rate than any president before him. His tax cuts for the wealthy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he funded outside the federal budget, added more to the debt than any other Bush administration efforts. Despite pledging to cut government spending, he presided over huge growth in federal funding.

This may leave the public confused when they hear the GOP say they are the party of limited government and, more important, of reduced government spending.

Sen. Specter’s decision was clearly motivated by politics — he feared defeat in a Republican primary next year. However, his message that his party has become too narrow should be heeded.

As Sen. Snowe wrote in a Wednesday New York Times column: “We cannot prevail as a party without conservatives. But it is equally certain we cannot prevail in the future without moderates.”

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