If House and Senate Republican leaders have their way, Saturday's gathering at Pie-Tanza, a strip-mall pizza joint in Arlington, Va., will be remembered as the beginning of the rebirth of the Grand Old Party. In addition to pizza, the venue, selected by the freshly born, center-leaning National Council for a New America (NCNA), served up symbolism: suburban areas like this one, on the outskirts of Washington, were GOP bastions not so long ago, and they'll need to come back to the fold for a Republican resurgence. Pie-Tanza was also small enough to make the crowd of 100 people (at least 30 of whom were journalists) seem thick.
Protesters were not supposed to be on the menu yet there they were. A small but vocal group of conservative Republicans showed up flashing signs like "RINOs Go Home," using the derogatory acronym for "Republicans in Name Only." (Read "GOP Senator Specter's Party Switch Gives Obama a 100-Day Gift.")
The protesters aren't the only ones who dislike the idea of the Republican Party's moving to the center, even though almost all of the 51 House seats the party has lost in the past two elections have come from moderate districts. "Democrats gained power by going to the most liberal Senator in the U.S. Senate, and they ran him for the presidency and they won," Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk-radio host said on Fox News Sunday. "They were relentlessly attacking George [W.] Bush for several years from the left. They didn't move to the middle, and the idea that Republicans now have to move to the middle what, beyond John McCain's middle?"
While Ingraham has a media constituency, moderate Republicans with constituencies of actual voters appear to disagree with her. "The Republican Party has gone far to the right since I joined it under Reagan's big tent," new Democrat Arlen Specter lamented on Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. Also on Sunday, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, one of two remaining Northeastern GOP moderates in Congress, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that Specter's loss, eight years after the defection of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, shows how little the party has heeded the warning signs. "There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party," Snowe wrote. "Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities."
The NCNA intends to take Snowe's concerns and turn them into action. Founded by Virginia Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, its birth was announced on President Obama's 100th day in office with the support of GOP leaders in both chambers as well as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who both spoke on Saturday alongside Cantor. The audience consisted mainly of Washington Republican consultants and Cantor supporters who received word from his e-mail listserv. The three struck a moderate tone. "It's time for us to listen, first, to learn a little bit, to upgrade our message a little bit, to not be nostalgic about the past because you know things do ebb and flow," Bush told the crowd. "You can't beat something with nothing. The other side has something. I don't like it, but they have it." (See "Obama's 100 Days: Behind-the-Scenes Photos.")
But some of the questioners had their doubts. "Quite honestly, people learn more from listening to Rush Limbaugh's show than in high school or college," Stephen Santelli, 28, told the crowd to applause in asking a question about education standards. "Look at what happened in November," Santelli lamented to reporters after the event. "John McCain was basically Democrat-light, and we lost the election. Move too much to the center and you lose the base."
Notably absent from the NCNA's membership are Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, (her former running mate, McCain, is a member), former Speaker Newt Gingrich, GOP chairman Michael Steele and potential 2012 presidential candidates Governors Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. Gingrich already leads his own such group, as does the Republican National Committee and former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie.
The Pie-Tanza event was billed as the first of many as the NCNA hits the road on a "listening tour" across America. It's unclear if more pizza joints are on the itinerary, but if Pie-Tanza is to be a Seneca Falls for moderates Republicans, the NCNA's membership might be wise to remember: like a pizza, a party sliced too thin cannot serve the whole.