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Republicans Contemplate a 'Center-Right' Nation


This week, at a dinner in Washington, DC, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said, `We now live in a right-of-center nation.' But how close is the United States to returning the Republican Party to the commanding influence it enjoyed a hundred years ago in the days of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt? Historian Lewis Gould is the author of "Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans." He's at member station KUT in Austin, Texas.


Professor LEWIS GOULD (Author, "Grand Old Party"): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: And Republican strategist and pollster David Winston joins us here in the Washington studio.

And thank you for being with us.

Mr. DAVID WINSTON (Republican Strategist; Pollster): Glad to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Mr. Winston, let's start with you. How far away do you think the Republican Party is from the kind of majority it wants to have?

Mr. WINSTON: Well, I think what you saw in the 2004 election was an emerging framework, that you could see the party has an opportunity to create a long-term majority. It is not there, and there are things that still need to be accomplished. Again, Bush only won by a couple of points. It wasn't like some second terms--like, FDR in his second term won by a huge margin; Nixon in his second term won by a huge margin. Bush won by a couple points, and it's: What does the Republican Party do to govern over the next couple of years to then be able to achieve that?

And I would actually argue with Congressman DeLay. We are not a right-center country; we're a center-right country. And because of that slight lean to the right, there's this opportunity for the party.

WERTHEIMER: Professor Gould, how do you think the strength of the Republican Party today compares with its dominance in the early part of the 20th century?

Prof. GOULD: Well, after Theodore Roosevelt won election in 1904, he got 56 percent of the vote to 37 percent for the Democrats, so that was a real blowout over Alton B. Parker. The Republicans had about 60 votes in the Senate, which they wish they had right now, and they had a dominant majority in the House. So it was, in that way, much more of a Republican nation in 1904 than it is now. I would agree with the characterization of the center-right.

WERTHEIMER: Well, talk about the difference between the party today in terms of geography and demography and what it stands for, and how that differs from the Republican Party--the turn-of-the-century party.

Prof. GOULD: Well, if you looked at a map of the election of 1900, an electoral map, and the map of 2000, it would look as though George Bush was William Jennings Bryan and Al Gore was William McKinley, because in 1900, the South was solid for the Democrats. There was literally, virtually, no Republican vote that was counted anywhere in the old Confederacy. And their strength was in the upper Midwest and the Northeast, with some bitterly contested states in the Middle West like Illinois and Ohio. So it was very much a party of the Northeast and the North, and the Democrats were a party of the South and the West. Now it's quite the opposite.

WERTHEIMER: David Winston, immigration was a big boon for the Democrats in the last century, and now there's an area where the Republican Party has made gains and expects to make more gains.

Mr. WINSTON: And has made significant gains.

WERTHEIMER: In fact, the president was up by--What?--9 points with Hispanic voters in the last election over previous performances.

Mr. WINSTON: In 2000, he was at 35 percent; in 2004, he was at 44 percent. But the Hispanic community is a very diverse community. You have at least three very clear groups of Hispanics in this country. You have Puerto Ricans, predominantly in the Northeast; Cubans in northern New Jersey and down in Florida; and then you have Mexicans, but also Central American as well. They are three very distinct communities. The one thing that does tend to pull them together is Catholicism. Catholics in this country, since Reagan at least, have been a critical swing vote, and the Hispanic community is tending to follow that tradition.

WERTHEIMER: Lewis Gould, looking back again, voters cooled to the GOP. As the Depression set in, the party came to represent something remote and indifferent and rich in the minds of many voters. Do you think that the party has completely shaken that?

Prof. GOULD: I do think that it has tempered its image as the party of big business over the last 50 or 60 years, largely on cultural issues, so that somewhat incongruous or sometimes discordant parts of the country coexist with each other for different reasons. In the 1880s and 1890s, there was a very powerful evangelical thrust within the party, which produced a backlash in the election of 1890, and the Republicans tempered their identification with evangelicals after that into the early 20th century. I guess David could speak more to the power and thrust of the evangelicals in the party and what that bodes for the future than I can.

WERTHEIMER: Go ahead, David.

Mr. WINSTON: As you begin to develop a majority coalition, inevitably what that means is there are more people coming into your coalition. The more interests that you have within that coalition, the more stress you develop. And that's ultimately why coalitions eventually do fall apart, because you can't manage those fissures and that stress. And so you have a range of people, for example, within the Senate, of everybody from Chafee in Rhode Island to a Brownback in Kansas. And as Frist, I'm sure, deals with, that's a pretty wide range of political ideology to manage on a day-by-day basis.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask each of you where you see future successes. David Winston.

Mr. WINSTON: I do think that the success that the Republicans had in this last election with Hispanics is going to continue. Immigrants are coming to this country for opportunity. Within a lot of surveys, you see that that's a strength of the party, the sense of opportunity and optimism in terms of the economic outlooks. So with Hispanics, the one opportunity.

WERTHEIMER: Lewis Gould, what do you think?

Prof. GOULD: Well, I think resolving the potential split between evangelicals and, as David points out, the Roman Catholics--because they've held together on such issues as abortion and gay marriage, but the evangelical agenda, which at least as I hear it either explicitly or implicitly has some problems for Roman Catholics, is not going to be an easy balance to sustain into the future. There's only one...

WERTHEIMER: The kind of thing you're talking about would be?

Prof. GOULD: Their sense of what should be taught in the public schools. On an issue like evolution, which the Catholic Church has no opposition, per se, to evolution, evangelicals are very much against the teaching of evolution; that would be a potential flash point. But also, evangelicals are, in much of their rhetoric, anti-Catholic. They do not believe that the pope is a legitimate representation of Christianity. And as these tensions come to the fore--they've been sublimated and submerged--there's a potential for denominational conflict that would work against the long-range interests of the Republicans.

WERTHEIMER: Historian Lewis Gould is the author of "Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans." David Winston is a Republican pollster and strategist.

Gentlemen, thank you both very, very much.

Prof. GOULD: Thanks for having us.

Mr. WINSTON: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Next week, how the future looks for Democrats.

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WERTHEIMER: It's 18 minutes past the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.