As the White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill work to retain control of Congress in November's elections, a small but vocal band of conservative iconoclasts say they would prefer to see their own party lose:
The array of former members of Congress and officials from Republican administrations dating to the 1970s are using opinion articles, speeches and interviews to make the surprising -- and, to many of their friends and colleagues, near-heretical -- argument that it would be better for the country if their party lost. Some say they plan to vote Democratic for the first time in their lives. The Republican rebels say the modern Republican Party has so abandoned its conservative beliefs that it deserves to be defeated by the Democrats.
Three factors are driving the conservative backlash against the Republican-led Congress. Fiscal hawks are furious about the growth of the federal government. Conservative lawyers such as Bruce Fein, who worked in the Nixon Justice Department and Reagan Federal Communications Commission, are upset that Congress allowed President Bush to claim expansive powers to eavesdrop on American citizens and detain suspected militants without trial. Others say the war in Iraq is a costly diversion from the war on terror.
Other Republicans couch their desire for Republican losses in political terms, arguing that Democratic control of Congress for at least two years would increase the chances of Republicans retaining the presidency in 2008, by giving Republican candidates high-profile Democratic targets.
"Every Republican I know thinks Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are the best things they have going for them," wrote Bruce Bartlett, a Treasury Department official during the presidency of Mr. Bush's father, referring to the top-ranking Democrats in the House and Senate. "Giving these inept leaders higher profiles would be a gift to conservatives everywhere," he added in an essay, part of a series by conservatives published recently in Washington Monthly magazine, under the heading: "Time for us to go."
"Republicans need a wake-up call," Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who now hosts an MSNBC talk show, says in an interview. "We ran in 1994 against runaway spending, exploding deficits and corruption. But with Republicans in charge of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, what do we have? The same runaway spending, record deficits and culture of corruption." He uses his show as a forum for those views and has published two essays on the theme.
Most Republicans, of course, don't think it is time for the party to go anywhere and are irked at those who suggest otherwise. Mr. Scarborough says that after his essay was published in Washington Monthly, his invitation to serve as master of ceremonies at a congressional fund-raiser with President Bush was revoked under White House pressure. A White House spokeswoman says the administration decided "that there were better options for an emcee" at the event.
Even many conservative critics of the current Congress say they plan to hold their noses and work to retain Republican majorities in the House and the Senate, arguing that Democrats can't be trusted to keep the country safe from terrorism or to sustain economic growth.
And White House officials wouldn't welcome the stream of subpoenas and investigations that could come from Democratic-controlled congressional committees.
The Club for Growth, a conservative economic-policy advocacy group, says it will give $20 million this election cycle to Republicans who share its antitax beliefs, regardless of the candidates' chances of winning a general election. The group backed conservative challenger Steve Laffey's unsuccessful primary campaign against moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, despite the Republican establishment's belief that Mr. Laffey was unelectable.
Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, says the group would be happy to see Republican moderates lose -- Club for Growth declines to support Mr. Chafee in what is expected to be a tight race against his Democratic challenger -- but stops short of campaigning against Mr. Chafee and other Republicans in the general election,
"Being Republican has to stand for more than having an 'R' after your name, and if that puts some seats in jeopardy, so be it," Mr. Toomey says. "But accept losing the Republican majority altogether? I just can't quite go there yet."
Mr. Scarborough, for his part, says he can "build a strong intellectual argument" for voting Democratic but can't bring himself to actually do so.
For the moment, Democrats appear less fractured than their rivals across the aisle. Many Democrats are so eager for an electoral victory that they are pragmatically backing candidates they once might have shunned.
Some Republicans, by contrast, having tasted congressional power for 12 years now -- and control of the House, the Senate and the White House for nearly six -- are ready to try being the opposition. Mr. Fein, the former Reagan and Nixon appointee, describes himself as a lifelong conservative who has voted for Republican candidates all his life and is disgusted by Democratic support for affirmative action -- which he sees as institutionalized racism -- and economic populism.
But he says that congressional Republicans have forfeited their right to control both chambers by failing to confront Mr. Bush over his expression of executive power, his interpretation of due process and habeas corpus, and his willingness to ignore legislation that he sees as an infringement of his war-fighting powers.
"A Democratic Congress will obviously not be promoting a conservative agenda, but at least they'll have the incentive, which is critical right now, to exercise oversight and restraint on the president," he says. "And that's much, much more than you can say for the Republicans who currently run Congress."
Mr. Fein recently bought a home in Florida and says he is scrambling to register to vote there in November, when he plans to do something he has never done before: cast a ballot for a Democrat. He says Democratic candidate Christine Jennings, who is running to fill the House seat vacated by Republican Senate candidate Katherine Harris, is "just the type of moderate I like."
Republicans are running as Democrats.
Throughout American history, political parties shift from left to right, and back again. One hundred and forty years ago, today's liberals would have been in the `party of Lincoln' (Republican). The Dixiecrats (the southern Democrats of fifty years ago) are today's Republican party. Politics has always been a business of pragmatism. When Republicans couldn't shut environmentalist groups down, they joined the organizations in massive numbers in order to control these groups' policies and agendae through their votes as members. The same strategy occurs within the Democratic and Republican parties, only these days it's moderate Republicans escaping the religious fundamentalist takeover of the Republican party.
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