Conservatives on the Edge

Washington Matters

Conservatives on the Edge

The loss of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's House seat to Democrats puts a sad but fitting punctuation point on the decline of conservative Republicans. Hastert, once heralded as just the team builder the GOP-led House needed in the late 1990s, ultimately elevated the already poisonous partisan warfare to levels so distressing to voters that they stripped the GOP of its majority in 2006. Hastert was the storybook hometown kid who made it big, born and raised in the district and later becoming the local high school wrestling coach. Always deferred to as Mr. Speaker in Washington, he was simply  "Denny" back home. That he couldn't help his party hang onto his seat in a solidly Republican district underscores how far his and the GOP's reputation has fallen. The question conservatives have to face now is, have they learned anything?

That remains to be seen. The Republican Party as a whole did move to the middle in selecting John McCain over more conservative presidential candidates, but many on the right remain reluctant to support McCain. Longtime conservative activist Brent Bozell wrote a piece in The Washignton Post Sunday arguing that McCain must move dramatically to the right and promise to confront Democrats if he has any hope of having the conservative base turnout in November.

Bozell acknowledges that such a move could hurt the GOP in the presidential and congressional elections but says allowing the party to move further away from conservative ideals would be more damaging to the movement in the long run. But Bozell's strategy also could have the opposite effect, marginalizing the right -- and the Republican Party along with it -- for years to come.

Confrontational politics and zealous pursuit of ideological goals are the paths that got the party where it is today -- in the minority in the House and Senate and in serious danger of losing the White House. And it was Hastert and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay who helped chart that path.

While Hastert did manage to work fairly well with Democratic President Bill Clinton in his last two years of office, under President Bush he became far more partisan and far less compromising. He developed a philosophy of refusing to bring up legislation unless it was backed by a majority of Republicans. That meant some centrist legislation supported by a majority of the entire House would be ignored -- and that was true even of bills passed by the GOP-led Senate. Parliamentary rules were stretched beyond recognition. A particularly favored tactic was to hold votes open, sometimes for hours, while leaders tried to bully or cut deals with recalcitrant members. Anyone who was not with them on key issues was regarded as a near enemy. Republicans who crossed the leadership too often or on key issues were stripped of committee chairmanships and plum assignments. When McCain once opposed a tax bill Hastert supported, Hastert questioned McCain's patriotism and loyalty.

While many issues Americans cared about remained trapped in congressional disputes, Hastert and DeLay made a point of pursuing legislation that was of great concern to the conservative base but either could not pass the Senate or was of little interest to the broader electorate. How out of step they could sometimes be was illustrated by efforts to intervene in the case of Terry Schiavo, who was determined by multiple doctors and courts to be in a persistent vegetative state, although her family disagreed with the diagnosisState courts sided with her husband and his desire to allow her to die. Congress tried to reverse the ruling by forcing the issue into federal courts. The federal courts wouldn't play along, however, and embarrassed Congress by chiding it for  overstepping its bounds.

As the disconnect between GOP leadership and public priorities grew, so did voter anger and mistrust. Hastert quit the leadership after the party's loss a year and half ago and resigned in mid-term. But it seems apparent with the demoralizing loss of Hastert's seat, Denny's seat, that the woes he helped heap on his party may go on a lot longer. Especially if conservatives and GOP leaders display no understanding of how they got in this fix in the first place.