In Iowa, GOP grapples with identity crisis
Republicans enter a new election year Tuesday debating more than just who should be their nominee for president against Barack Obama. They're engaged in a struggle over how radically they can or should change the country's course.
On one side is the tea party conservative, the kind of voter Richard Nixon once said belonged to a silent majority, who simmered as the party spent and piled up debt through the Bush years, then exploded with rage with the ascent of Democrat Obama and even more spending and debt.
On the other side is the pragmatic, establishment Republican, who also yearns to change course but argues the party first must win power. These Republicans fear confrontational politics and policies could scare off moderate independents, making a win more difficult and governing impossible.
The GOP fault line was evident in 2010 primaries that purged moderate candidates in states such as Delaware and Nevada; in state capitols over how hard to hit public employees; and in the House of Representatives in clashes between party leaders prone to compromise and new members intent on drawing a hard line on the federal budget.
And it cuts through the presidential campaign, as tea party conservatives cheer candidates such as Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who vows to cut $1 trillion in spending in his first year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who slams rival and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for having voted to raise the nation's debt ceiling eight times, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who boasts of her opposition to raising the government's debt ceiling last summer.
At the same time, pragmatists support candidates such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who stresses a more collaborative approach to governing. Romney, for example, says he'd cut the federal workforce, but through attrition, not layoffs.
Rick Halvorsen, an insurance salesman from Indianola, Iowa, and chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, is among those who want the party to be bolder, much bolder, even if it risks losing.
"The alternative is to lose our country," he said. "We're $15 trillion in debt. Nobody's got the intestinal fortitude to do what needs to be done."
Worse, he said, the idea of softening the party's stand to win the election doesn't even guarantee victory. "That's what they told us about [John] McCain," he said of the 2008 nominee who went on to lose the general election.