Should Republicans be a party of yes, or no?
For three days, Republicans reveled in a Mardi Gras of partisan pugnacity.
One after another, speakers stood before thousands of loyalists and denounced the Obama administration and congressional Democrats with extravagant contempt, lifting the audience from its seats with depictions of a president who overreaches at home while shrinking from America’s duties abroad.
Beneath the shared animosity, however, are differences that point to continued struggle over the direction of the GOP, which, polls suggest, is little more popular than it was when voters elected President Obama in 2008 and turned Congress over to Democrats in 2006.
Part of the fight is over purity: whether Republicans should embrace candidates across the ideological spectrum, so long as they carry the party banner.
The other disagreement involves a literal yes-or-no question: Can the GOP best position itself by standing in unyielding opposition to Obama and the Democrats?
On one side at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who told delegates, “We should decide we’re going to be the party of yes.”
He offered a list of things Republicans can embrace, such as lower taxes and less spending, and urged GOP candidates to preface public comments by saying, “Let me tell you what I’m for.”
But Sarah Palin swept aside such talk. “There is no shame in being the party of no,” the former Alaska governor said, to one of several ovations. “When they’re proposing an idea that violates our values, violates our conscience, violates our Constitution, what’s wrong with being the party of no?”
Part of the disagreement reflects the difference between November’s election and the one in 2012. A midterm vote is a referendum on the president and almost invariably results in losses for the party in power. The question now is whether Republicans win enough seats to take control of the House, which seems increasingly plausible, and possibly the Senate.
The 2012 race, however, won’t be a referendum but a choice: presumably between Obama and maybe one of the half a dozen or so possible contestants who addressed delegates in New Orleans.
Their series of speeches served to highlight another fissure, between those of a Washington pedigree and those convinced the road back to power does not run along the Capital Beltway.
The latter view was vigorously promoted by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, fresh off a primary win over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, whom he pummeled as a captive of the Washington establishment. Perry urged candidates to run as outsiders:
“One of the things that they should say is, ‘Elect me and I’m going to Washington, D.C., and will try to make it as inconsequential in your life as I can make it.’ ”
Perry drew cheers by suggesting that many Republicans had become as bad as Democrats, supporting bigger government and more spending under President George W. Bush.
Part of the reason Republicans fell from power was the sentiment Perry expressed -- that the party had betrayed its principles -- and many of the faithful are still angry.
Every mention of the “tea party” movement, a rival for conservative affections, was celebrated. When former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum opened the floor to the audience, several speakers drew standing ovations by condemning party leaders in Washington and demanding support for candidates who are purebred conservatives and not just Republicans.
Moments later, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who helped engineer the party’s 1994 landslide as national chairman, pushed back by saying the GOP shouldn’t squander November’s opportunity by imposing litmus tests. “People that think like us, people that believe in what we believe in, we’ve got to welcome them,” Barbour said.
In November, the GOP’s anger and frustration will be channeled against Democrats. But then, when the presidential race intensifies, the skirmishing will increase over what it means to be a Republican in good standing and whether the answer involves a yes or a no.