The Many Brands of Opposition

Sorting through the various roles and players in the Republican Party.

Newt Gingrich. Click image to expand.
Newt Gingrich 

There is no leader of the Republican Party. There probably won’t be one until the GOP nominates its next presidential candidate. But while the hierarchy of the players shifts, the party drama follows an expected pattern. As Republicans react to developments like President Obama’s modification of Bush-era national security policies or his nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, it may not always be possible to know which member of the cast will appear—but it is possible to predict which roles will have to be filled.

So what are these roles? The first player onstage is usually the Conservative Snarler. Brusque and bullying, he is often a news entertainer (or is that an entertaining newser?) like Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. He sometimes shouts down his opponents and calls them names. At his best, he speaks plain truths. No monuments have been erected to moderates, he argues. True, people don’t rally to weak rhetoric. (Give me liberty or give me something close to it that isn’t altogether too bad in the end!)At his worst, he’s all knuckle—inciting mayhem by encouraging ignorance. Responding to the Sotomayor pick, Limbaugh called her an “angry woman” and then compared her to former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. Newt Gingrich called her a racist. By willfully reading her remarks out of context and ignoring history, the former speaker took a legitimate inquiry into her level of activism and made it toxic.

After Gingrich’s remarks, it was only a matter of time before the Avuncular CEO came onstage. Conservative, this character is also an adult—reasonable and mindful of politics outside the GOP base. He has standing to speak because he has experience in the matter at hand. His tone tends to be the gracious and civil one ascribed to Ronald Reagan by Noemie Emery in the Weekly Standard.

David Frum plays the intellectual version of this role when he argues for expanding the GOP, as does Charles Krauthammer when he argues for a gas tax, or Peggy Noonan when she argues for adulthood. When Obama nominated Sotomayor, most of the Republican senatorial class embraced this posture. They were “concerned” and sometimes “troubled,” but they weren’t getting overly emotional. Sen. John Cornyn led the way, rebuking Gingrich. “This is not the kind of tone that any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advice and consent,” Cornyn told NPR’s All Things Considered.

Next, there is the GOP Moderate in Agreement. (Roles for this character have been shrinking.) She is moderate in beliefs and temperament. She is willing to partner with the popular Democratic president, as did Florida Gov. Charlie Crist earlier this year. (Lot of good it did Crist.) While some Republicans criticize Sotomayor’s views as typical of the liberal obsession with identity politics (and her selection as evidence of same), Sen. Olympia Snowe embraced the choice. “I commend President Obama for nominating a well-qualified woman, as I urged him to.”

Finally, there’s the Wise Moderate. A slight variation of the policy moderate, this participant uses policy opportunities to nudge the Republican Party in a more inclusive direction. He doesn’t necessarily need to agree with the president or the Democrats; his role is simply to exhort everyone to watch their tone. Writing in the Daily Beast, former Bush and McCain strategist Mark McKinnon argued, “[B]lasting targets like Sonia Sotomayor and Colin Powell is a surefire strategy to guarantee our extinction. ” Former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt made the case last month that unless Republicans dropped their opposition to same-sex marriage, they’d never capture voters under 30.

During last week’s debates over national security, we witnessed the same GOP self-sort. Cheney played the Snarler, standing up for himself and arguing that Obama had made America less safe. Cheney’s daughter was his understudy, arguing that Obama found it “fashionable” to side with terrorists.

The role of Avuncular CEO for that episode was played by former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, whose standing comes from being a former national security decision-maker. He criticized Obama’s hyperbole about the ideological nature of Bush-era policies, but he also disagreed with Dick Cheney’s claim that Obama had made America less safe. (He also did a cameo as the Wise Moderate, instructing the party to debate ideas, not personalities.) Defense Secretary Robert Gates has a permanent role in the repertory on national security issues as the Moderate in Agreement. In the Senate, Republican Dick Lugar plays that role.

Some Republicans can play more than one role, depending on the issue. Though Gingrich has been Snarling a lot recently on issues like Obama’s handshake with Hugo Chávez, the administration’s views on religion, and Nancy Pelosi, he played the Wise Moderate before inauguration. He wrote to the then RNC chairman that the party was engaging in “negative, attack politics that the voters rejected in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles” by trying to tie the president-elect to embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich. During the stimulus debate, Limbaugh put aside his race to the bottom and played the CEO in an article in the Wall Street Journal. And though liberals can’t imagine Dick Cheney cast as anything but the Snarler, they should remember he is perhaps the highest-ranking pro-gay-marriage politician in history.

All taxonomies are flawed and must be flexible, of course. GOP Chairman Michael Steele creates categories all his own: He too called off race-based attacks on Sotomayor by saying there should be no “slammin’” and “rammin’,” which made him sound like a Rhyming Wise Moderate. But when he suggested, “I’ll empathize right on your behind” in response to Obama’s talk of empathy as a quality for his Supreme Court pick, he was a Puzzling Conservative Snarler. He has also been known to play the Moderate in Agreement, as when he called abortion “an individual choice” (a position he later clarified by saying he is “pro-life”). The only role he has yet to play is Avuncular CEO. If the chairman is lucky, his growing repertoire will lead to an expansion of the GOP tent.