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Republican leaders look at the party's future

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Al Quie
Of the three panelists, former Governor Al Quie is the most conservative and the least critical of the current Republican leadership, but he also made a plea for moderation.
MPR Photo/Al Quie

Jim Ramstad is not seeking re-election this year. But during his nearly two decades in Congress, the Minnesota Republican Congressman says he has seen moderation and bi-partisanship steadily decline.

"And I was really hopeful, as many of you were, as many Americans were, I was hopeful it could be restored when George W. Bush came to Washington, but instead of being a uniter, he followed Karl Rove's playbook too often," Ramstad said.

And Ramstad, who supports abortion rights, lamented what he sees as a growing rigidity within his party.

Jim Ramstad
Ramstad, who supports abortion rights, lamented what he sees as a growing rigidity within his party.
MPR Photo/Jim Ramstad

"My hope is that we Republicans will see the day when litmus tests on social issues will disappear. And fiscal responsibility with a social conscience will again return to center stage," said Ramstad.

Ramstad was one of three Republican panelists at the event, organized by a local liberal think tank. Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice.

"Republicans in this state now are generally considered anti-tax, anti-government, but the history of the party is really more progressive and moderate," said Smith.

Smith rattles off a list of past Republican governors whom he says were willing to accept higher taxes in exchange for robust spending on education and infrastructure.

Arne Carlson
Carlson was more critical of his fellow Republicans, but he had sharp words for Democrats, too. He says neither Barack Obama nor John McCain is talking about real fiscal responsibility.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

"People like Harold Stassen, Gov. Elmer L. Anderson, Gov. Harold LeVander, Gov. Luther Youngdahl..."

And he adds former Govs. Al Quie and Arne Carlson to the list. They joined Ramstad on the panel. Carlson focused his comments not on state politics, and he didn't try to mask his disdain for the other gathering of Republicans taking place a mere two miles away.

"Neither political convention is discussing anything of any value. They are not mentioning the deficits. They are not mentioning the consequences ... What they are talking about is how bad is the other guy, and we're not as bad," said Carlson.

If anything, Carlson was more critical of his fellow Republicans. But he had sharp words for Democrats, too. And he says there are neither Barack Obama nor John McCain is talking about real fiscal responsibility.

"Both political parties are carrying out that identical message: They will cut taxes, or so they promise. And they will increase spending, or so they promise. But what they will not tell us is when do the lines of responsibility and accountability cross?"

Of the three panelists, former Governor Al Quie is the most conservative and the least critical of the current Republican leadership, but he also made a plea for moderation.

"After a while, institutions become more important than people. That's what's wrong with public schools. That's what's wrong with the Republican Party, when you try to be the most conservative person so you can get endorsed," said Quie.

Quie and Carlson both expressed a degree of optimism that John McCain's candidacy might re-invigorate the party's moderate wing. 

Ramstad went as far as to mention McCain in the same breath as two towering figures from Republican history.

"So, my hope now is that our party, the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and McCain, can restore the balance and moderation that once characterized our internal debates and public policy making," said Ramstad.

But McCain chose a running mate from the party's conservative wing. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has drawn rave reviews from many of the delegates the the Republican National Convention. Ramstad didn't criticize the Palin choice, but when asked his opinion of her, his response was measured.

"It was certainly a bold choice, but I really don't know much about her record. I'm looking forward to learning more," said Ramstad.

Quie praised Palin for her executive experience. She's served two years as governor and was the mayor of a small town before that. And he pointed out that while she's a staunch social conservative, she also has a reputation as a reformer.

"The other people he considered did not really take on the leadership of the party," said Ramstad.

But Carlson flatly panned the Palin pick, saying she simply doesn't have enough experience.

"That's not a person who should have been under anybody's consideration. The politics may be compelling, and the politics may be appealing. But ultimately, do you want that person to be the next president of the United States?"

And when asked Carlson wouldn't say whether he planned to vote for the McCain Palin ticket. He called it a private question.