The GOP: sloganeers to supremos

With moderates marginalised, the conservatives in control of the Republican Party have transformed it into a formidable, near-unified force – and are now pressing to reshape the United States.

FT.com

Jim DeMint reaches into a pocket for his BlackBerry as he grapples to explain his mission for the year – shifting the US Senate firmly into the conservative camp – and searches for the words of Milton Friedman.

Signs of the conservative constancy of the Tea Party’s favourite senator are strewn through his office. A thick wooden cross is laid on his desk. A book about Ronald Reagan sits on the coffee table. And inside his device he finds the quotation from the late economist underlining how conservatives need to do more than just be elected but must be forced to behave like conservatives in office.

"Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing,” reads the Republican senator from South Carolina, holding the BlackBerry up to his eyes, "the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.”

The Republicans control the House of Representatives after a landslide win in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. As the US economy creeps out of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, they stand a big chance in November of winning the White House and the Senate as well.

However it plays out, the 2012 election is groundbreaking. Just as Barack Obama in 2008 became the first African-American president, Mitt Romney, crowned as the presumptive Republican nominee after his clean sweep of five primaries on Tuesday, has a good chance of becoming the first Mormon president.

But the most transformational change in US politics has been inside the Republican Party. Although he styles himself as an outlier, DeMint and his ilk are at the vanguard of a movement that has remade the Grand Old Party into a formidable, near-unified force and is now pressing to remake the country.

It has been a long journey, starting with Barry Goldwater in 1964, bolstered by Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s capture of the white working-class vote in the 1970s and 1980s and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in the 1990s, which aimed to destroy the Democrats. Should they win in November, the conservative stars are now aligned for radical change, slashing taxes and beginning to unwind decades-old liberal programs that provide healthcare to the poor and the elderly.

After a period in which Obama has pushed back with some success against demands for austerity, the Republicans are committed to reversing course, at a time when demand in the US and the global economy is still weak and the deficit is at a record.

The party’s candidates have long pledged to slash the size of government and eliminate some departments. With Friedman’s dictum in mind, DeMint plans to ensure that this time they carry through with their plans and cut deeply into government spending. "This is the tipping-point election for us,” he says. On debt: "America is really in a worse position than Europe”.

Judging from the statements of leading Republicans, the likes of DeMint and the populist Tea Party are pushing at an open door in their campaign to cut government. Across the party, there is almost no dissent about this agenda.

This is marked change from the past. Once a broad church that offered a home to social and economic moderates such as Nelson Rockefeller and George H.W. Bush, a wave of upheavals over several decades has transformed the party into an uncompromising and deeply conservative force. The decline in moderates in the GOP also parallels the fall in the number of voters who identify as moderates. A Gallup poll in January found "conservatives have become the single largest group [in the electorate], consistently outnumbering moderates since 2009 and outnumbering liberals by two to one”.

"Moderation is the word that dare not speak its name any more,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of a history of modern conservative politics. "There are still a lot of American people who call themselves moderates but they have almost no influence in the Republican party.”

Two political scientists at Washington think-tanks – Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann from the Brookings Institution, describe the party’s transformation more dramatically in their forthcoming book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. As much as the mainstream media and non-partisan commentators might not like to say it, they write, the Republican party has become "an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.

At the same time, the so-called Republican establishment, a loose alliance of serving and retired politicians, financiers, industrialists and lawyers clustered on the east coast, has increasingly lost control of the party. It is now more southern, more evangelical Christian and more blue-collar than it has ever been.

Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor and chair of the Republican National Committee, is by any reckoning part of the party establishment but he says that now barely exists. "The idea that we’re going to pick our nominee in a smoke-filled room – hell, nobody even smokes any more,” says Barbour, whose jocular riposte hides a more serious point – that Republican power brokers struggle to impose their will on the party.

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At first glance, Romney's victory in the hard-fought Republican nomination battle does not fit the modern mould. The son of a moderate governor of Michigan is from the relatively liberal north-eastern state of Massachusetts and has battled throughout the primaries to overcome doubts about the strength of his conservative beliefs. He has been able to do so only by adopting the new Republican agenda, most notably the budget.

Written by Paul Ryan, the up-and-coming Wisconsin congressman and chair of the House budget committee, the fiscal plan reduces outlays by $5.3 trillion more than Obama’s budget plan over the same 10-year period, largely by cutting spending on federal departments and the social safety net. Ryan and Romney leave defence spending untouched, a reflection of their emphasis on maintaining the global reach of American power.

So enamoured has Romney become of Ryan that the 42-year-old is now talked of seriously as a vice-presidential running-mate – a partnership that would put fiscal issues at the heart of the election. It would also put to rest the label Romney’s intramural opponents had attached to him – that he was a "Massachusetts moderate”, a slander by contemporary Republican standards.

Top Republicans reject claims that the party has taken a radical right turn. Like many senior figures, Barbour cites one word – debt – to explain the party’s policies. "At the height of Vietnam, the depths of Watergate, in the midst of the Carter malaise, I’ve never heard anybody say something that I now hear, if not every day then every week, and that is this: ‘I’m afraid my children and grandchildren are not going to inherit the same country I inherited’.

"We’ve been a country for 236 years; it took us 233 years to run up $10 trillion worth of debt, and another $5 trillion in just three years. This is mind-boggling to Americans. Yet what is the reaction of the administration? New budget, more spending. We can’t go on like that.”

Barbour says the party has changed "only a little bit”. But a checklist of policies that were once part of the conservative mainstream but have now become heresy for Republicans tells a different story.

The "individual mandate” at the heart of Obama’s healthcare policy, the requirement that anyone who could afford to should buy health insurance, is a policy that originated in the Heritage Foundation, a rightwing think-tank. Likewise, cap-and-trade, a markets-based policy to price and thus reduce greenhouse emissions, was supported by many Republicans. Now, even to acknowledge global warming is all but out of bounds.

Nixon established both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, but each has become a dark symbol on the right of government over-reach and regulation.

Bush championed the Hispanic community in his first bid for the White House in 2000 but was later forced to retreat from policies that offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. The issue still divides the party and dogs the Romney campaign.

The most significant change, however, is in tax policy. The Republicans have always been the low-tax party but under pressure from activists such as Grover Norquist, a lobbyist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, members have gone far beyond their pledge never to raise marginal tax rates. In fealty to Norquist, nearly all Republican members of Congress have also agreed that any closure of tax loopholes that brings in greater revenue is also a tax rise and thus should be offset with cuts elsewhere.

John Boehner, the Republican House speaker who hails from the party’s traditional wing, was poised to test Norquist’s edict in a deal he negotiated with Obama last year in which he agreed to revenue rises. The deal eventually collapsed, but voting on a bipartisan agreement with Obama that included an increase in the federal tax take was likely to have stretched Republicans’ loyalty to the speaker. "The whole concept of two parties working together, a constant of the American system – in fact it was set up that way – seems to have gone out the window,” says historian Geoffrey Kabaservice.

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In the election Romney faces the traditional balancing act – of moving back to the centre after throwing red meat to the base during the primaries. That will be more difficult this time because the base is more conservative, but a unified dislike of Obama may give him some flexibility. Recession and a lack of confidence in Obama’s economic management make the president very vulnerable. In such a climate, instead of making the election a referendum on his stewardship of the economy, Obama’s campaign team has decided to make the poll a vote on radical Republicans.

It is a fight that DeMint, who used to run a market research business, welcomes. For him, the US faces an existential battle over the expansion of government and rising public debt that the Democrats are congenitally unable to address. "The Democrats cannot help us reduce the size of government, because that is their constituency,” he says. "I am considered more hardline, perhaps because I have been a businessman, but every compromise over the past 10 years has been on their side of the ledger, to spend more money.”

This time, he promises, will be different. "There cannot be a compromise,” he says. "There will be a fight.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.