Big tent or 'blurring the lines'? Reagan words, meaning drive GOP debate

Big tent or 'blurring the lines'? Reagan words, meaning drive GOP debate

Ronald Reagan’s approach toward Democrats and centrists has become the latest flashpoint in a debate over the Republican Party’s future.

Potential GOP presidential contenders are disputing the 40th president’s interpretation of courting those outside the party at a time when Republicans are sharply divided over New York special election primary for the 23rd District House seat.


One group claims the best strategy is to broaden the base with varying viewpoints that might appeal to new voters, while the other warns against letting anyone in who might dilute the party’s conservative beliefs. And both claim their approach is what Reagan would do.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has staked her claim to the latter, arguing that Reagan advocated against "blurring the lines." She said courting Democratic and independent voters is the wrong way to go. As a way to make her point, Palin endorsed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over Republican Dede Scozzafava for the New York House seat.

"Political parties must stand for something,” Palin wrote in a note on her Facebook page Thursday evening. “When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of 'blurring the lines' between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections.

"Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. This is why Doug Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party's ticket," Palin wrote.

Part of Reagan’s success was found by reaching out to “Reagan Democrats”, who defected from their party in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who has made moves in recent months to suggest he will seek the party’s presidential nomination, seemed more open to that idea.

He refused to endorse a candidate in the New York race, saying he had not followed the race closely enough to make a pick.

But Pawlenty did make a point on Thursday to cite Reagan's assertion that someone who agrees with the party on four out of five issues is 80 percent a friend, not 20 percent an enemy.

"We've got to be a party that's about addition and not subtraction," Pawlenty said Thursday.  "In places like Minnesota, the Northeast, the West Coast, the Mountain States, the Upper Midwest, the Great Lakes, we don't have a margin of error where we can afford to shrink the party. We want to be growing the party if we're going to win elections and also have the opportunity to govern and make a difference for the country. So this is about expanding market share, not contracting it."

Pawlenty, who declined to say the party should embrace candidates who back abortion rights or same-sex marriage, noted Republicans could court the other side without diluting the brand.

"This is about trying to get independents and Democrats to support us, not for us to become more like Democrats,” he said.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) also accepted that view of Reagan’s legacy with Democrats. He has endorsed Scozzafava in the New York primary. He told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on Thursday that while he would not support Scozzafava for president, she is the right candidate for the district by virtue of the fact that she won the party's selection process.

"Ronald Reagan campaigned for many people he didn't agree with," Gingrich said. "You say, 'How do we get a majority? How do we kick Nancy Pelosi out of the Speaker's office? How do we make Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaImmigration is top issue facing country: poll Airbnb is doing the Democrats' dirty work Obama puts out call for service on MLK Day: ‘Make a positive impact on the world’ MORE a one-term president? You had better be prepared to run a coalition that is pretty big, because this is a country of 305 million people."

Many Republicans fear the party split in New York will ultimately hand the race over to Democrat Bill Owens. The divide is the latest example of the growing feud between ideologues and pragmatists.

But one Reagan biographer thinks the real discussion should be a more basic reevaluation of party strategy.

"Reagan would say that America does not need two big government parties and that is the sad legacy of the last eight years of Republican governance," said Craig Shirley, author of Rendezvous with Destiny, a new biography of Reagan released last week. "He would say that the GOP needs to return to making the individual the centerpiece of the party's philosophy and not the state, as it has been made in recent times."