John Cornyn: Savior OR Prisoner of GOP?

An unlikely moderate voice

CHRIS PUMMER: It’s hard to argue the point that Republicans need to capture more of the middle portion of the electorate if they’re going to compete in national elections.

But at the same time a leadership vacuum seems to have a handful of would-be and could-be presidential contenders scrambling to see who can hide in the farthest-right corner of the party.

That’s why John Cornyn has become an unlikely voice for a moderate GOP, and is maybe the closest thing the party has to a real leader capable of dragging the party closer parity with the Democrats.

But consider Cornyn’s views:

  • Hates taxes
  • Hates the environment
  • Doesn’t care for gays marrying box turtles or each other
  • Doesn’t want abortions or stem-cell research
  • Loves guns
  • Loves wiretaps and waterboarding
  • Likes the war in Iraq
  • Likes conservative Supreme Court justices

In other words, Cornyn is a down-the-line conservative. And not like Mitt Romney pretends to be on the campaign trail. The junior senator from Texas actually has the legislative record to back up his right-wing rhetoric.

So how is it that Cornyn might be the most influential Republican leading the party back into the mainstream?

Cornyn might just be possessed by a trait that strong leaders have but is presently missing in GOP leadership circles: pragmatism.

Since becoming the Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Cornyn has jumped in to endorase Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in his race against the more conservative Marco Rubio. He’s called the likely Republican nominee for one of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats unelectable because he’s too conservative.

He’s also doing his best to move the dialogue around Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor away from race and gender, which are losing paths for the Republicans.

Instead Cornyn is trying to lead his party down a winning path. What he belives about his own politics — or even the politics of his constituents — is immaterial. Especially if the GOP is relegated to long-term minority status. And instead of crusading with a set of repudated talking points in hand like some politicians who aren’t even in elected office, Cornyn seems more dedicated to marching Republicans back into the political mainstream.

HOWARD MEGDAL: But his politics do matter, just not for the reasons commonly assumed.

I agree with you, Chris, that Senator John Cornyn sent several strong signals that he aims to be a pragmatist. One is the endorsement of Crist, and another, stronger signal is the repudiation of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich’s incendiary comments about Sonia Sotomayor.

The latter seems more significant to me, in fact, because unlike the Florida race, there’s no direct electoral imperative involved. It involves philosophy. So clearly, John Cornyn isn’t afraid to challenge some of the giants currently in the GOP fold- giants, that is, if only due to an absence of true giants, but giant nonetheless.

But the difficulty John Cornyn will have leading the GOP out of the wilderness is twofold. Yes, he’ll need to change the tone significantly. That is an important problem for the Republicans currently.

But the policies are a big problem, too. Look at the policies advocated by Barack Obama in 2008. They do not differ in scope or really, even in tenor from what the Democratic Party wanted in 2004. What brought the Democrats out of the wilderness, in a vastly over-simplified way, was a combination of a self-destructing GOP and a fantastically talented messenger for those ideas.

But even if Cornyn displayed anything approaching Obama’s abilities as a communicator-and he certainly doesn’t- he is still tied to his same, wildly unpopular ideas. If he becomes the more tone-tolerant face of the Republican Party, Democrats can still point to his ideas, his votes, and this limits his ability to be a transcendent figure for the GOP.

One important note: Cornyn is not a GOP troglodyte on immigration. He’s accomplished a number of things in the Senate that point to an open-minded view on the subject, from reducing the waiting period for citizenship given to illegal aliens serving in the armed forces, to easing restrictions in several ways on guest workers.

Considering how much damage the Republican Party has done and will continue to do to itself with Latino voters in making race-based arguments against Sonia Sotomayor, Cornyn’s in a position to not only moderate his tone, but back it up with his work on immigration. It’s far from the only issue that matters to Latinos, let alone the swing voters at large who decide American elections. But it’s a start.

As far as I can tell, though, it’s too little, too late. Cornyn’s fate was cast when his votes in the Senate were cast.

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