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Is the Tail Wagging the Elephant?

The sharp swing in free trade opinion among GOP voters exemplifies the party's electoral challenge.
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It has been well documented how the Republican Party transformed itself over the last several decades. In an effort to expand its base, the GOP turned to values-based voters who care about family values, are pro-life and anti-immigrant and generally pro-business.

This movement succeeded, and culminated in the GOP holding the House, the Senate and the White House from 2000 to 2006.

But Republicans, while in power, have moved away from small government and fiscal responsibility, though the president has tried to reclaim that mantle with his recent veto of

children's health care. Today's new

Wall Street Journal poll shows Republicans have gone sour on free trade -- a demonstration of a dramatic change. And it makes one wonder if the GOP has lost its ideological principles.

Republicans have long been the strongest proponents of free trade. But here's the money quote from the

Journal

piece:

Six in 10 Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports. That represents a challenge for Republican candidates who generally echo Mr. Bush's calls for continued trade expansion, and reflects a substantial shift in sentiment from eight years ago.

The same poll taken in 1999 showed that 31% of Republicans thought free trade was a bad idea. Why the big change?

Some of the change can be found in GOP campaign strategy. The GOP has often chosen to run on issues that evoke emotion, rather than running on any particular policy change.

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One example of this would be immigration. The president attempted to pass bipartisan legislation that would have created an eventual path to citizenship for many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Republican foes of the bill blasted it as "amnesty." In reality, the bill offered nothing resembling a free pass. The path to citizenship required a fine, security checks, a return to the immigrant's home country, and a long wait of up to 13 years or more to be legal.

But the xenophobes won the battle. The immigration bill went down to defeat and took some Republicans like Sen. John McCain down with it. This sentiment also signals more of an isolationist sentiment, which in turn would make more people in the GOP feel uncomfortable with foreign trade. The anti-immigrant sentiment could hurt the GOP with Hispanic voters, who now constitute 10% of the electorate and continue growing.

The lack of an immigration bill and fiscal responsibility has also hurt the GOP with business. Many small businesses depend on immigrant laborers to keep costs down. The best example of dissatisfaction may be seen by the recent book that former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan wrote where he expressed "the GOP deserved to lose" in the 2006 elections.

The other growing piece of the electorate is independents, making up about 20% of registered voters. Democratic voters have remained steady, but the GOP has lost voters over the last few years, and in 2006, as the Democrats took over both the House and the Senate, the GOP lost the independents.

The leading GOP presidential candidates grasp there is a problem. Former governor Mitt Romney has changed his campaign theme to try to run on change. He wants the GOP to return to its past ideals of small government, strong defense and family values.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani says that fiscal responsibility and tax cuts can unite the GOP again, and that Sen. John McCain echoes that sentiment, with a particular mention of earmark reform.

Clearly, dissent has a place in the party. I recently mentioned how

Christian conservatives have expressed displeasure with the candidacy of Giuliani.

Furthermore, Texas Rep. Ron Paul also has caught on as a candidate in favor of small government and strict adherence to the ideals of freedom as found in the Constitution. His campaign announced a huge third quarter for fund-raising -- $5.08 million. Paul also opposes free trade but supports free markets.

Ultimately, the emotional issues the GOP has campaigned on for the last 12 years have splintered the party. It cost them the election in 2006, and if they can't find their ideological way, the confusion may cost them more elections in the future.