The Squishes, The Right Wing Wackos and the Republican Majority
Posted on June 17, 2008This orginally appeared in The Politico
In 1989, when I started working for then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel, I was full of ideological enthusiasm. Fresh off of reading “The Fountainhead” and listening to Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC tapes, I was, in my mind, a fire-breathing conservative who became a bitter critic of George Bush the First and his Big Government ideas. I thought of myself as the most conservative member of the Michel leadership staff. Some thought I was a right-wing wacko.
After I had worked for five years for Michel, a war hero and one of the best leaders in congressional history, he announced his retirement. I decided to go back home to Illinois, where I worked for Denny Hastert, a loyal lieutenant of Michel. Hastert curiously became the campaign manager of Tom DeLay, a bitter critic of Michel who was running for Republican whip.
DeLay, with Hastert’s considerable help, won the whip race as Republicans captured the House for the first time in 40 years. I moved back to Washington to work for then-Majority Whip DeLay and Hastert, his chief deputy. I eventually became DeLay’s communications director.
It was in this job that I learned that I wasn’t conservative at all. I was a squish.
“Squish” is a word used by conservatives to deride those Republicans who don’t exhibit enough conservative moxie.
The cold, hard truth is that it takes both squishes and right-wing wackos to make a Republican majority in the Congress. But it is not an easy process for the two sides to trust one another enough to come up with a common, unified agenda.
In the days following the 1994 elections, I loved it when House Democrats would say that they lost the election because the Democrats weren’t liberal enough. Bring on more of those liberals. In the seats that made the majority, they were easy pickings.
It made me nervous, though, when Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel took the reins of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. His philosophy was different. He focused on winning. He recruited candidates who best fit their district, no matter how their philosophy might have conflicted with the liberal ideals of the orthodox Democrats.
But just as Emanuel took philosophy off the table for the Democrats, many conservative groups put it back on the table for Republicans. Pressure from outside groups increased on Republicans from the Northeast to adhere to a more conservative line. But what plays in Texas doesn’t necessarily go over so well in New York, Illinois, New Jersey or New Hampshire.
Now the short-lived Republican majority is no more. Some conservatives believe that the only way to get back to a majority is to be more conservative.
I understand their frustration. Republicans seemed to lose their way by spending too much, by becoming too intoxicated with power, by losing the moral high ground through scandal.
While all that was true, the real reason the Republicans lost is that they became a regional party. They got killed in the Northeast, in places like Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire and New York, and in the Midwest, in states such as Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.
In 2006, we lost some seats because of scandals in Texas, Florida and California. But we lost the bulk of our majority because we didn’t listen to what the voters in the Northeast and the Midwest were saying.
These voters don’t want us to be more conservative, per se. They want us to be more relevant to their lives and to do better at the job of governing than the Democrats. Otherwise, the voters will just go with the Democrats.
The way back to a GOP majority is for the Republicans to hammer out a philosophy and a process that works in all 50 states. They need an agenda that fixes a broken government. They need to focus on the big picture, not on the special interests.
They need to go through a process of listening and then sifting through what really matters to the voters. They need to be flexible in their approach but firm on their principles.
Barry Goldwater’s campaign theme was “a choice, not an echo.” Republicans can offer a real choice that works nationwide. They don’t have to echo the kind of philosophical mumbo jumbo that comes from the Democrats. But the choice offered by Republicans must be sellable to all parts of the country, not just in the South.
John McCain’s reform agenda is a good place to start. Republicans do better when they are reformers, not reactionaries. They do better when they make incompetent government, not a group of people, the villain. They do better when they respect different religions and backgrounds and ethnicities. They do better when they offer a positive vision of the future.
The squishes and the right-wing wackos can work together. They have in the past. And without that kind of unity, the Republicans will be in the wilderness for a long time to come.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm.