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Free-Market Conservatives push anti-tax agenda at almost any cost

Stephen Moore, board member of American Conservative Union (ACU), was the former director of fiscal policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. He now runs "The Club for Growth," which backs candidates that are friendly to big business.
GOP purists push anti-tax agenda at almost any cost
Knight Ridder News, July 6, 2003

PHILADELPHIA - Stephen Moore and his die-hard conservative allies are taking lots of hits these days. They're reviled as "cannibals." They're accused of "eating their own." They're "fratricidal purists." Their tactics are "stupid." And that's just what fellow Republicans say about them.

The GOP reigns in Washington, but not always harmoniously. There are fissures at the moment - purists versus pragmatists, conservatives versus moderates - and the name-calling has gotten so bad, you would think they were auditioning for "Jerry Springer."

Basically, the purists are not satisfied with the Republican triumph. They see enemies in their own ranks. They want to purge the GOP of "Benedict Arnolds" and "Franco-Republicans" who seem insufficiently zealous about cutting taxes. (In conservative eyes, the French are wimps about Iraq.) And the purists want to cleanse the party of its few remaining Northeastern moderate lawmakers.

But let Stephen Moore tell it: "The only reason God put Republicans on this earth is to cut taxes. We want to improve the party's gene pool."

And that's why Moore - president of a well-financed, Wall Street-connected, much-feared conservative group called the Club for Growth - took up residence last week at the Union League in Philadelphia. He was making a pitch to rich donors, seeking their aid in his mission to help conservative Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey knock off Sen. Arlen Specter in the GOP primary next April.

Specter is one of those "Benedict Arnolds" (Moore's phrase), because, among his wayward acts, he voted against Bush's first tax cut in 2001. Moore is eager to whack a few other incumbent Republicans next year - two moderate New York congressmen and another in Maryland. But Specter comes first, "because if we can take out a four-term incumbent, the other moderates in Congress will start behaving themselves, for fear of suffering the same death experience."

But to critics, this kind of talk violates Ronald Reagan's famous 11th Commandment - "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican" - and even the Bush White House is wary of the Club for Growth, fearing that its uncompromising quest for purity (and its current vow to raise $20 million for next year's congressional races) could backfire, endangering some of the Republican moderates who have helped the GOP attain majority status.

Many GOP strategists are afraid to utter even a word of criticism because they don't want Moore to target their candidates. But pragmatists have formed a group - the Republican Main Street Partnership - to fight the purists, dollar for dollar. In fact, this group is sponsoring a fund-raiser for Specter in a few weeks.

Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, the group director, says the purists "don't really care about the party. It's an ego thing. It seems more important for them to have like-minded, lock-step people instead of a majority. To challenge our incumbents in primaries, that's ridiculous.

"And now here's the Pennsylvania mess. It's a swing state, yet now we have two Republican factions fighting each other. We'd rather be spending our money against the Democrats, but if this is what (Club for Growth leaders) want to do, then, well, two can play that game."

Some critics have likened the club activists to the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the 18th-century zealots who beheaded their own comrades in a bid for ideological perfection.

Moore likes the comparison - "When your opponents attack you like that, you've got to feel good about it" - and has even circulated a guillotine picture among his allies. But there's a modern context for these tensions.

GOP conservatives have scorned moderates at least since 1964, when followers of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater booed New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller at the national convention. Generally, however, the purists - often from the religious right - stressed social issues, notably abortion. The new purists stress economics.

There are other groups in this purist coalition - notably Americans for Tax Reform - but the club is the most electorally active. It evolved in 1999 from a small cadre of Wall Street executives and free-market economists (including CNBC host Larry Kudlow and Milton Friedman), and now boasts nearly 10,000 members.

They give money to club-endorsed candidates, but more often they give money directly to the club, which, under federal law, can spend unlimited amounts on "independent" attack ads as long as they don't explicitly tell the audience whom to vote for.

(Moore wants to raise $2 million for anti-Specter ads; he'd need every cent, since Specter is already sitting on at least $7 million.)

Those attack ads can be a potent weapon, and the club has wielded them at all levels. A club-backed conservative, Scott Garrett, nearly toppled moderate New Jersey Rep. Marge Roukema in 2000; she retired last year rather than risk a rematch in 2002, and Garrett now has her seat. And in California last year, when a Republican state senator named Mike Briggs voted for a state tax increase, the club swooped in, ran $300,000 in attack ads, and Briggs was purged in a primary.

Yet many Republicans are still furious that the club ran TV ads last spring attacking two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio, because they had refused to support Bush's original pitch for a new tax cut worth $726 billion. Snowe and Voinovich still wanted to cut taxes, but by $350 billion.

Moore has his own major beefs with the Bush team. Like many purists, he faults Bush for failing to shrink the welfare state, and if the prescription-drug bill is enacted, Bush will expand it greatly.

"Bush is the biggest-spending president since LBJ," Moore complains, "and a lot of Republicans are like sheep, the way they follow him around. He and Rove just want to be surrounded by yes men. But we'll attack him when we need to."

Resnick, the director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, says that Moore's attitude has already proved dangerous. She says that in three recent gubernatorial races - New Jersey, California and Virginia - the club helped bankroll conservatives who defeated moderates in the GOP primaries, only to be trounced by the Democrats in November. (The New Jersey loser, Bret Schundler, is tight with the club.)

Moore says, "We do eat our own, sometimes. I'm sensitive to that. But we do a lot to help the Republican majority," such as targeting Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota. His re-election race is next year, but the club is already running TV ads there.

Still, Moore's top priority is toppling Specter in the primary. And even though Bush will be stumping for Specter, and even though Pennsylvania political analyst Terry Madonna scoffs ("This is a bad state for Moore. There are maybe enough conservatives to get Pat Toomey more than 40 percent"), Moore persists like a true Jacobin:

"The Specters of the world are the last of a dying breed of Rockefeller Republicans, an endangered species that muddies the conservative message. And we won't fully arrive as an organization until we have a major scalp on the wall."

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