Bush has failed and the Republican Party is divided, in ruins and with little hope for the next election cycle — all according to some of its own members. The atmosphere was festive as more than 50 conservatives and libertarians gathered Wednesday to discuss the future of the Republican Party, but the drinks and cacophony of conservative voices were only the accoutrements of a wake.
After drinks and appetizers, the crowd listened to a panel of conservative and libertarian speakers bemoan the rift that’s arisen in the Republican Party between fiscal and social conservatives.
“We’re screwed,” was the more polite summation of commentators participating on the Republican Party’s future at the “How the West Will be Lost” panel in downtown Denver. “The Audacity of Despair” and “The Futility of Hope” were alternative titles suggested by conservative participants between complimenting – no sarcasm there or here — liberals like Jared Polis and Tim Gill efforts to fund and organize the Democratic Party’s efforts.
What could be described as the leave-us-alone coalition bluntly blamed social conservatives for focusing on social issues such as gay marriage rather than fighting to keep government small.
Ryan Sager, author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party,” placed the blame for the party’s current schism and future trouble squarely on the shoulders of social conservatives.
“If the Republican Party wants to tell the entire younger generation we’re the party of bigotry, well, good, God bless them, but they’re gonna lose,” said Sager, whose comment was met by vigorous applause from about half the audience.
Jim Pfaff, president of the Colorado Family Institute, which is closely associated with Focus on the Family, said freedom and personal liberties are important to Coloradans, and those liberties need to be defended for families and fetuses.
“I have no desire to live in a pro-life, socialist state, and I believe that most social conservatives would agree with me because if you did, then the pro-life is going away too. Liberty is critical and we need to stand for the principles of liberty,” said Pfaff, who emphasized the need to reunite the Republican Party’s “Reagan Coalition” of social and fiscal conservatives.
The panel, moderated by FacetheState.com Editor Brad Jones, seemed at odds with Pfaff’s stance, arguing Republicans had strayed too far from their fiscally conservative roots.
“The problem isn’t getting Republicans to win,” said John Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a Golden-based, right-leaning, free-market think tank. “The problem is getting Republicans to act like Republicans.”
Fiscal conservatives teamed up with social conservatives because it appeared God was pro-gun and anti-tax, Caldara half-joked, but these days “God is having second thoughts on both guns and taxes.”
And God’s friends seem to have gone on the government dole, Caldara said, also noting that President Bush’s administration had failed to uphold fiscal conservatives’ values.
Ripping a page from the film “Back to the Future,” Gene Healy, a senior editor at the Cato Institute, asked his conservative audience to envision predicting the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.
“You’re going to tell a bunch of Republicans, ‘Listen, when all this is over and all these chads are counted, the next president will take us on a nation-building expedition and increase spending and expand the welfare state faster than any president since LBJ.’ They say, `Man, Al Gore won that election,'” Healy said. “And he might as well have, because the differences are hard to see.”
Healy said that divided governments, with different parties controlling different branches of government, typically spend at one-third the rate of governments where one party controls all branches of government.
The commentators also expressed despair for the Republican Party’s prospects in this fall’s presidential race, with some saying they would hold their noses long enough to pull a lever for John McCain.
The 90-minute talk was punctuated by laughter, applause and the occasional heckle, with some members of the audience saying the debate’s message was nevertheless depressing.
Jerry Roach, a self-described conservative, said he enjoyed the discussion, but worried about the future of Colorado conservatives.
“I’m not a social conservative, and I was hoping the social conservatives weren’t splitting us like they were saying,” Roach said.
The panelists agreed on one thing: Colorado is a bellwether state.
“If we lose here, we will lose everywhere; it’s that big of an issue, and we’ve got to come together even in the disagreements on these conservative principles or we will fail. And it is for lack of that coming together that we find ourselves in the situation we are now,” Pfaff said.
The event was sponsored by America’s Future Foundation, which is holding similar discussions across the nation and is hoping to establish a local Denver chapter modeled as a right-leaning counterweight to Drinking Liberally, representatives of AFF said.
And as Colorado goes, so goes the nation, even if it’s not the direction conservatives want to point the country.
“This really seems to be ground zero for this battle,” Jones said.