By Stump Connolly

republicancoverWhen the loyal opposition gathers in Washington these days, it becomes ever more clear what they are most opposed to is each other. Senator Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats last week only highlights the fact the Republican Party has split in two –– Let’s call them The Limbaughs and The Snowes –– and there’s not a tent big enough in America to let them co-exist in the same party.

The Limbaughs, led by the radio voice of Rush Limbaugh, contend there is no room in the party for supporters of higher taxes, immigration reform, abortion rights, gay marriage or, for that matter, any gays at all.

They call themselves True Republicans, and there is some support for their claim in the party platform Republicans have routinely passed at their conventions going back almost 16 years.

The Snowes –– named after the last remaining voice of moderation in the party, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) –– represent everyone else, a dwindling lot.

The latest polls show only 21 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans. In the northeast corner of the country, there is not a single Republican representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the Midwest, Democrats hold the governorship of every state except Indiana, where Mitch Daniels is serving out a second term.

On National Public Radio, David Brooks predicted the other day that the party is in such disarray it will take 12 years before Republicans can again mount a credible challenge for the presidency.

Twelve years is a long time for the two wings of the party to fight over who rules this mole hill of a minority. But 12 years is ample opportunity for moderate Republicans to plant their own flag on Capitol Hill and have a credible, and immediate, impact on the national debate.

Call them the Reasonable Republicans (or Re-Republicans.) By any name, this centrist coalition would include not only Snowe and Specter, but Republican senators Dick Lugar (R-Indiana), Christopher Bond (R-Missouri), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and, of course, Mr. Maverick himself, last year’s Republican standard-bearer John McCain (R-Arizona).

Add in a few moderate democrats like Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and, ideologically, Max Baucus of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota (who chair the Senate finance and budget committees); name Colin Powell the new party chairman; and you have a force to be reckoned with.

In the Senate, where President Obama’s agenda hinges on 60 votes to break a filibuster, the Re-Republicans would sit at the pivot point on critical issues. In the nation at large, the new party would be a haven for fiscal conservatives who don’t want to be required to pass a right wing litmus test on the social issues to join.

American government runs on a two-party system. Third parties, as a rule, generally rise up on the fringes during presidential elections and quickly die off. The most successful in recent years was led by Ross Perot, who siphoned off enough votes in 1992 (18 percent) in 1992 to assure the election of Bill Clinton. The most notorious was Ralph Nader’s Green Party, whose three percent total tilted the 2000 election from Al Gore to George Bush.

The notable exception in history to the failure of third parties is the Republican Party itself. With the Whig Party divided over slavery, Republicans fielded their first presidential candidate in 1852 on a platform of “free labor, free land and free men”––slavery taking third place to the economic issues of the day. The Republicans finished a distant second in that election (and the Whigs finished third.)  Eight years later, the Whig party disappeared and Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president in history.

It is too early in the Obama administration to identify issues on which the president is vulnerable. But there are any number of his proposed programs that might go awry.

A principled conservative opposition could single out government intervention in the economy that discourages private enterprise; government oversight of industries like automobiles that, however well-planned at the top, invariably puts the execution in the hands of lower level bureaucrats who respond more to political influences than market forces.

Most Republicans and more than a few Democrats would agree that the less the government intrudes on the operation of private companies, the more efficiently they will run. On that premise, a new party might be born.

The Re-Republicans have many options for asserting their core principles:

• Obama’s stimulus package of $787 billion in federal spending is loaded with wasteful projects. (No doubt.)

• His subsidies for alternative energy projects like corn oil ethanol only encourage the use of foreign oil instead of curbing it; and they miss the opportunities for free trade pacts with South America that offer far more efficient sugar-based alternatives.

• His “cap & trade” energy proposal will delay our economic recovery. On the vague notion that he is reducing carbon emissions, Obama is actually creating a government set of regulations that will hinder heavy manufacturing industries as they attempt to recover from this depression.

• Obama’s support of the “card check” union-organizing tool not only invalidates the American right to a secret ballot, but will further depress our chances of an economic recovery.

• His administration of the bailout program for banks (TARP) unduly rewards Wall Street financiers for their mistakes at the expense of community banks who are the heart and soul of our cities and towns.

• The national health care plans coming out of the Democratic-controlled House don’t take advantage of the economies offered by a free competition among private health care insurance companies.

• And his education initiative doesn’t adequately allow local communities to define how, and what, the parents want their children to learn.

In a reasoned discourse on where the nation goes next –– in this time of crisis -–– these are the questions a loyal opposition should be asking.

But the Limbaughs aren’t in any position to ask them. They are too preoccupied setting the standards for membership as a true Republican. As long as their criterion is a “family values” agenda set in the days of Ozzie and Harriet, there aren’t many people who want to apply. (Ask Levi Johnson and Bristol Palin.)

“The former party of Lincoln and liberty has now melted down to a fundamental core of aging, rural Dixiecrats and intrusive scolds,” Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times. “It’s position on the American spectrum of ideas is somewhere between a doomsday cult and Scientology.”

If the political future of America is to be determined in the realm of public discourse, we have to engage in a discussion of specific programs and how, specifically, to execute or oppose them. In these depression-era times, that is a discussion of economic policy from the perspective of both conservatives and liberals who are willing to engage in an honest debate over the role of government in the private sector.

It is not a debate over-shadowed by whether sex education can be taught in the high schools, whether condoms can be distributed in Africa, gays can serve in the military, or women who want abortions should go back to finding back-alley doctors who use coat-hangers to scrape their uterus on the sly.

If that is the how Rush Limbaugh envisions the Republican Party of the future, I have a new name for them: The Know Nothing Party.

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