By Reid Wilson - 09/22/09 10:45 AM EDT
Two recent controversies that became high-profile Republican victories sprouted from the grass roots far from Washington, and only later were adopted by congressional Republicans.
The twin successes highlight the biggest difference between today’s GOP and that of a few years ago, when former President George W. Bush was giving marching orders. There is no longer one voice speaking for the whole party.
That’s not a worry to many Republicans, particularly after a strong August that had President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats on the defensive. They’re optimistic that their base is once again motivated and primed to bring the GOP success at the polls.
“It tells you how broad and diffuse the leadership of the Republican Party is,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and one of the GOP’s leading voices on stripping ACORN’s funding.
“Our best leaders and best ideas come from the grass roots,” added Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). “It’s individuals taking leadership in their government.”
But it scares some GOP strategists, who privately admit that the party could hurt itself in the long run.
These Republicans are desperate to avoid having their party associated with those who still believe Obama was born outside the United States, or those who have called the president a racist or socialist.
Democrats charge the GOP with being taken over by fringe groups and causes.
“It’s not surprising that the Republican Party is being lead around by [Glenn] Beck, [Rush] Limbaugh and the rest of the right-wing noise machine,” said Hari Sevugan, the Democratic National Committee’s press secretary. “That’s what happens when you don’t have any new ideas or leadership of your own.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are not widely loved among activists. Potential presidential contenders Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin and others may be exciting to some, but they have yet to accrue a widespread following. (Even Huckabee, who won a weekend straw poll at the Value Voters Summit in Washington, took just 28 percent of the vote.)
And rising stars like Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) are not well-known among the activist base.
To GOP strategists, though, the void means gaps are being filled by local activists rather than by national figures.
“Rush Limbaugh is not the leader of the party. Sarah Palin is not the leader of the party. In fact, [Republican National Committee Chairman Michael] Steele is not the leader of the party,” Issa said.
“Every person putting together a tea party becomes an equal leader of the Republican Party.”
The assault on Jones began when television host Beck started probing his ties to a group that questioned whether the U.S. government knew more than it let on about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Beck himself has called Obama a racist. He has also questioned whether Obama is a legitimate president by raising questions about the authenticity of his birth certificate.
The latest ACORN battle in Congress began after undercover activists released a videotape showing ACORN employees advising a man dressed as a pimp and a woman playing a prostitute how to smuggle young girls across the Mexican border.
The battle over czars — White House officials who do not require Senate confirmation but who have defined portfolios and are charged with shepherding policy through the executive branch — gained widespread attention after the march of tea partiers earlier this month in Washington.
GOP strategist Ron Bonjean says the strategy could be effective, but that Republican leaders need to go beyond simply jumping aboard the latest issue that irritates the base, and offer solutions that can appeal to independent voters.
“The only way to get your message through is if you can get everyone to say the same thing at the same time,” Bonjean said. But, he added: “At some point in the next year, Republicans will probably have to have an alternative plan, because at that point voters will be giving us a second look.”
But the success of recent weeks is undeniable. McHenry said having everyone in Washington talking about the same subject can catapult it onto front pages everywhere, even when Republicans have just 40 seats in the Senate and 178 in the House.
“When you have 178 elected officials in the same party, it’s rare that they talk about the same thing at the same time. I don’t know if it’s organization or coincidence or if [it’s what] constituents are talking about,” McHenry said.
Adds Issa of the emerging plethora of voices, “We lost the majority by group-think, and we’re going to win it back by including the ideas of all of us.”