Michael Steele, Newt Gingrich and Republicans at a Crossroads

The social safety net is here to stay. It's now just a question of how big it's going to be.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The Republican Party is at a crossroads. In one direction: a well-marked road to retrenchment and a return to the glory days of our parents' era of the Republican Party. In the other direction: an unmarked trail through the woods toward reform and rebuilding in the difficult and dangerous 21st century.

That unmarked path is getting more traffic these days from those pulling a U-turn away from the divisive, loud politics practiced by conservative extremists out of touch with the way most families today think and act. They're also worried about the unprecedented growth of the federal government and the implications of that massive expansion for future generations. From everything I've seen and heard, those people are interested in hearing a coherent message of active but limited government, with a strong defense and an inclusive approach toward women and minorities trying to live the American Dream.

In a New York Times M agazine piece earlier this month, Matt Bai wrote of those "broadeners" who lean more toward reform than ideological purity as the party rebuilds:

Conservatism, in their view, does not mean catering to a dwindling base of white and older voters, big business and evangelicals, while younger voters, women, urbanites and minorities recoil from the Republican brand. Much of the energy here is coming from the governors, who as a rule are forced by political reality to take a less divisive approach to governing...

This intramural disagreement raises basic questions from Republicans about what kind of party they actually want to be in the 21st century. Is the Republican future going to continue to rely on country-club denizens and the rural bloc, or should it aim more for working-class Catholics or recent immigrants? Can a party trying to expand its coalition afford to make fundamentalist religious values a core tenet of its ideology? Or to assault the very idea of government?

Assaulting the very idea of government is what the holdouts on Ruby Ridge were doing, while the rest of the mainstream has realized the social safety net is here to stay. It's just a question of how big it's going to be—and so far, the three moderate Republicans and a few fiscally conservative Democrats in the Senate have had more say about limiting the size of the government than anyone else. Maybe there's a lesson there.

The Republican Party needs to figure out what it wants to say and how to say it, as well as who is saying it and to whom. Michael Steele's one-man media tour isn't going to cut it. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post wrote today about Chairman Steele and the problem facing the GOP:

The Republican Party has backed itself into a regional, ideological and demographic corner—the one marked "rural, conservative, white." The party is out of step with the nation it aspires to lead, and until room is made for those with a range of views--and those with different racial and ethnic backgrounds—it is hard to imagine how the party can achieve its dream of establishing a new "big tent" majority.

Robinson doesn't seem to realize that RNC chair Michael Steele himself is definitely not rural, conservative, or white. The fact that he was elected (granted, after quite a few ballots) by a majority of the Republican National Committee says that at least some Republicans are ready for the path not taken.

Newt Gingrich spoke to students at the College of the Ozarks yesterday and said, "If the Republicans can't break out of being the right wing party of big government, then I think you would see a third party movement in 2012." Some took that to be a threat. I took it to be a road map for all those folks on the road less traveled.

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