GOP Skirmishes Over Future Direction

When your party no longer occupies the White House and represents the minority in Congress, it's probably a good thing to embrace new voices and ideas. Let a thousand flowers bloom and all that. But with most of the Capitol focused on Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, it's been a scrappy few days for Republicans nonetheless.

Today, there are reports of renewed jockeying between House Minority Leader John Boehner and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor over the party's future direction. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also chimed in, urging Republicans to brand themselves as the party "who will keep an eye on the cash register." Christie has bemoaned the fact that "nobody's asking my advice" despite his status as a rock-ribbed fiscal conservative who won election in a blue state.

The latest tensions follow revelations of Cantor's plan to launch a nationwide book tour in August to promote a new GOP manifesto he is coauthoring with fellow up-and-comers Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan. A divide appears to be emerging between younger members like these—who crave a fresh approach—and Boehner, who is reputed to want to keep the focus on the Democratic Party's failings and promote Republicans as the lesser of two evils (notwithstanding his bold suggestion yesterday that raising the retirement age to 70 is a "step that needs to be taken").

Still, some of Cantor's forays have not been without their own embarrassment. Amid great fanfare earlier this year, he launched the National Council for a New America, a vehicle to hold nationwide town-hall meetings. The first event was held in a pizza parlor and headlined by Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. But in May the initiative was dropped following Democratic complaints that it violated ethics laws. Then came Cantor's "YouCut" initiative, in which online viewers were invited to vote for which federal budget item they would most like to see slashed. As NEWSWEEK noted, even if every one of Cantor's proposed cuts was made, the amount saved would equal less than one 10th of 1 percent of federal spending.

As for Christie, the recently elected New Jersey governor has quickly earned folk-hero status among Republicans (and ire from many liberals) for his stern efforts to turn around the state's worst-in-the-nation budget deficit, install a 2.5 percent property-tax cap, and take on teachers' unions. In a breakfast interview with Politico this morning, he recommended that Republicans "should be talking about treating people like adults and telling them the truth: we're in huge trouble. It's going to mean cutting back on a lot of things that folks either have become used to or in a perfect world would like to have."

Christie also counseled Republicans against campaigning too far on the issue of immigration. "It's a very easy issue to demagogue and I'm just not going to participate in that."

On all the available evidence, Republicans look set to make strong gains this November. Yet fissures clearly persist over whether the party's pitch should be positive or negative, and should prioritize fiscal issues over social ones. Some elbowing is also inevitable as leading figures in the party jostle for a prime position post-November: if the Republicans take control of the House, Cantor would be majority leader.

A final query: where, in all of this, are they hiding the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele? He's barely been heard from in two months.