WASHINGTON — Republicans have been united (and perhaps delighted) by the travails of the Affordable Care Act that are now dogging President Obama and dividing congressional Democrats. But there is less consensus about what the GOP should do to heal its own significant fissures.
Since last month's government shutdown drove the public's assessment of the party to record lows, USA TODAY has sat down for extended interviews with five top Republicans who represent different factions of the party, from the congressional moderates (Maine Sen. Susan Collins) to the Tea Party movement (Sarah Palin) as well as the pragmatic governors (Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Scott Walker of Wisconsin), and the old guard (former vice president Dick Cheney).
Has the Republican Party gotten off track?
"You can't look at the history of where we've been the last few years and say we've done things right," Haley, who is running for a second term in 2014, said in an interview at the state Capitol in Columbia, S.C. "I think, if anything, we've got lessons to learn."
Step one is to "admit our faults," she said. "The worst thing you can do is say we aren't doing anything wrong."
These GOP leaders draw lessons from Mitt Romney's loss to Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election and from the split decision in the two gubernatorial elections this month, in New Jersey and Virginia. But their prescriptions are sometimes conflicting — underscoring a divide between establishment Republicans and Tea Party conservatives that hasn't abated.
Among the lessons learned:
• No more shutdowns.
The 16-day partial government shutdown last month over Republican demands to defund Obamacare is now generally seen as a misstep that cost the party's political standing with voters without delivering policy benefits.
"I'm not going to speak ill of any Republican ... but I did greatly disagree with the strategy that some of my Tea Party colleagues pursued," Collins, who helped negotiate the framework of an agreement that ended the standoff, said in an interview in her Senate office. While she voted against the Affordable Care Act, "linking it to the continued functioning of government was a strategy that was doomed to fail from the very beginning."
Walker, who is running for a second term in 2014, agrees. "I'm willing to take on fights, obviously, but I want an end game," he said. "Part of the reason (Americans) are so upset with Congress in both parties is they perceive Washington just fighting for the sake of fighting."
Still, Palin remains a defender. "It was standing up on principle," she said, calling it not a true "shutdown" but a "slimdown."
• Stand for something.
Romney's campaign is widely derided for focusing only on Obama's shortcomings, not on a clear vision of what he would do differently.
"If you look at that presidential election, everybody thought if they said enough about President Obama's record, that was enough," Haley said. "But never did we say what we were for."
At one point, Walker said he was so frustrated by the course of the Romney campaign that he sent a long e-mail to the candidate, offering some unsolicited advice. "Repeat your plan over and over again," he wrote. "Give out more details" and "show more passion." He never heard back from him.
As for Cheney, he said the party shouldn't let its zeal for cutting the federal budget undercut its traditional support for Pentagon spending and military muscle.
"I've got problems with what's happening to defense," the former Defense secretary said in an interview at his home outside Jackson Hole, Wyo., adding it was "very, very dangerous" to go ahead with cuts under the so-called sequester. "The thing I worry about is that it's gotten to the point where even a lot of my Republican friends are saying, 'At least we're cutting something.'"
• Reach out to Democrats in the middle . . .
Collins says Republicans should work with Democrats to reach bipartisan deals on big issues like a tax code overhaul and a sweeping budget deal, "casting aside the politics and working for the good of our nation." That could help restore confidence in government. "If trust is at an all-time low, then people can't expect that we're going to be able to solve the really big problems facing our country."
• . . . or hang tough on the right.
Not so fast, Palin said.
"The old-school thinking Republicans who think that this is a time to compromise and reach out across -- where is that getting us?" the former Alaska governor demanded. "We keep losing issues. We keep losing on Obamacare and deficit spending." She endorsed the more defiant approach of the Tea Party, "a grassroots movement that is the right movement needed for America today."
Cheney defended the Tea Party, too. "As a political party, we need to re-energize the base," he said. He said if he were still in the House, where he was elected to six terms, he might well be counted among Tea Party ranks.