Republicans just won; is it 2008 already?

No time to let the guard down. Two books by GOP stars chart different courses for the future.

By Scott Martelle

Los Angeles Times

January 18, 2005

The first confetti has yet to be thrown for President Bush's inauguration Thursday but two new books are already looking to the 2008 election and what the Republican Party needs to do to retain power.

The options: Stay true to the socially conservative positions that helped Republicans win in the short term — they control the White House and both houses of Congress. Or adopt more moderate social positions, reduce the Christian right's influence and try to coax the party more toward the middle in hopes of dominating the political future.

In the conservative corner stands former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose "Winning the Future" reads like a presidential candidate's manifesto — which it might be. Last week, Gingrich fanned speculation about a 2008 run by promising to take his book tour to Iowa and New Hampshire — tiny book markets but the leadoff states in the nominating process.

In the other corner is former Bush cabinet member and past New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who argues in "It's My Party Too" that the Republicans could lose their gains of the last decade if they do not distance themselves from "social fundamentalists" and adopt more moderate positions represented by popular party figures such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Both major parties have long endured internal squabbles over how far right the Republicans should go and how far left the Democrats in a nation where the key votes are in the center. What's unusual about these two books is their timing — the orchestras for the inaugural balls haven't even tuned up yet and the Republican family fight has already started.

"This is awfully early for a 2008 ideological battle," said Larry J. Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "Usually it's the midterm [elections] — that's when you start thinking about the next presidential race."

It's also significant that Republicans, rather than out-of-power Democrats, are raising these issues now.

"Normally, it's the party that has lost a couple of elections that introduces all the books with the wailing and the gnashing of teeth about the future," Sabato said.

Democrats and progressives did most of their wailing last year, a banner season for political titles from both sides of the aisle at a time when reader interest in politics was high. But that interest has waned. This week's Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller list had one political book, "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart's "America," among the top 15. In mid-October, five political or current events books made the list.

"I find it odd, and not particularly cogent" to market a political book now, said Doug Dutton, adding that interest in the Gingrich and Whitman books has been light at his Dutton's bookstores in Brentwood and Beverly Hills. "It doesn't make any particular sense to me."

Unless, he said, the books are intended to stake out ground for the politicians' futures — which is overtly the case for Gingrich but less clear for Whitman.

During his two decades in Congress, including four years as speaker, Gingrich built a reputation as a political bomb-thrower. His book continues in a similar vein, marking the 10th anniversary of his famous "Contract With America" with this new "21st Century Contract With America," the book's subtitle.

The book begins with a litmus test, asking readers to agree or disagree on a scale of 1 to 10 with politically loaded statements such as, "Men who assault pregnant women and kill the unborn child should be prosecuted for murder." Other statements include "Believe in God" and "We should be allowed to say, 'One nation under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance." Readers who tally more than 51 points out of a possible 100 are invited to continue reading: "This book is about how you can protect and defend America's traditions and values."

Gingrich describes a split America. On the one side are people "who know how integral God is to American exceptionalism," place American national interests ahead of international concerns, "insist on a judiciary that understands the centrality of God in American history," and see hard work as the underpinning of a good economy.

They are opposed by "elites who find it acceptable to drive God out of public life." Efforts to build a strong economy are "hampered by trial lawyers who seek their own enrichment instead of justice; by labor unions that insist on special deals and protection instead of competition; and by bureaucracies that emphasize process over achievement."

In an echo of President Nixon's famous "silent majority," Gingrich's conservatives are victims. Gingrich writes: "Since the 1960s, the conservative majority has been intimidated, manipulated and bullied by the liberal minority. The liberal elites who dominate academia, the courts, the press, and much of the government bureaucracy share an essentially European secular-socialist value system."

Yet since the 1968 election, Republicans have occupied the Oval Office 24 years to 12 for the Democrats, the courts are likely to continue a rightward shift over the next four years and Congress is even more solidly Republican than two years ago.

Where Gingrich's book is doctrinaire, Whitman's is personal, part memoir and part analysis of how the Republican party can return to what she sees as the successes of the Nixon and Reagan eras — when conservatives and moderates coexisted under the party's "big umbrella."

Whitman attended her first Republican National Convention in 1956 as the 9-year-old daughter of prominent New Jersey Republicans, and describes her early political years as a "Rockefeller Republican." She's a fiscal conservative and supporter of legalized abortion who found herself isolated after accepting Bush's appointment to head the Environmental Protection Agency. She quit two years later, getting poor marks from both environmentalists and pro-development groups.

Whitman believes the party's future is to be found in the past. Despite a reputation as a conservative, she writes, Nixon presided as a moderate, opening détente with the Soviet Union and diplomatic relations with China, creating the EPA, urging creation of a national health insurance plan and increasing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Whitman includes obligatory slaps at current Democrats, blaming their anger over the 2000 recount as fuel for the partisanship fire that swept Washington in 2001. But she also blames social conservatives under the "it takes two to fight" rule, and says the radical right has sought to purge moderates from the party — including trying to unseat incumbents such as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania for not being conservative enough.

"The leaders of these groups seek to impose rigid litmus tests on Republican candidates and appear determined to drive out of the party anyone who doesn't subscribe to their beliefs in their entirety," Whitman writes. "As far as they're concerned, the Republican Party is not my party too; it's their party. Period."

Even Reagan accepted moderates, she writes, and his electoral coalition of conservatives and "Reagan Democrats" is the template the party needs to use now. Whitman argues that if the party fails to move back to more moderate positions it risks mirroring the Democrats' collapse after that party moved to the left in the late-1960s and early 1970s.

Since then, only two Democrats have made it to the White House. In 1976, Jimmy Carter beat President Ford, who hadn't been elected to the office in the first place, after Ford pardoned Nixon in the Watergate scandal. And Bill Clinton won a split field in 1992 with a mix of charisma and policies that appealed to the moderate middle.

Merle Black, a political analyst at Atlanta's Emory University, doubts many Republicans will heed Whitman's call because the party has far more conservatives — the people Whitman believes would rather lose than compromise — than centrists. The parties have moved to political poles, Black said, and it will take more than a book to change such gravitational forces.

For the Republicans, he said, that means playing to the Christian right. And in this case, politics will likely drive book sales — at least among the faithful.

"Moderates supplement the conservative base of the party," Black said. "I think, without having read the books, Gingrich's will resonate more with Republicans than Whitman's."