PBS "Newshour" - Transcript


JIM LEHRER: There is much energy within the Republican Party's conservative movement in this 2010 election year.

Judy Woodruff reports on the genuine debate that lies behind it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's John McCain's coming primary challenge in Arizona, Charlie Crist's departure from the GOP in Florida, in Kentucky, Rand Paul's defeat of the establishment candidate, and Sharron Angle's come-from-behind victory in Nevada, all signs of growing conservative life across the land.

But the new muscle from the right has crushed a few of the GOP's own and has ignited an argument inside the party. To many who follow Washington, the two Republican senators from Utah and South Carolina may seem like peas in a pod, both longtime loyal party members, both conservative.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT, R-Utah: The economy is in serious trouble.

SEN. JIM DEMINT, R-S.C.: Let's not spend all this money unless we really know what we are doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it doesn't take much of a look beneath the surface to discover differences between Utah's Bob Bennett and South Carolina's Jim DeMint in their view of their roles in the Senate and of some of the main issues facing the country.

They illustrate as well as anything else the philosophical divide inside the Republican Party and the fight being waged for the direction it will take in this year's elections and beyond.

Bennett was elected in 1992 from the most Republican state in the country. He's been an important adviser to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. But, in recent years, he has also worked across the aisle with Democrats on a couple of big issues, an effort in the financial crisis of 2008 to craft bank rescue legislation and, a year earlier, to reform employer-based health care with Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.

SEN. RON WYDEN, D-Ore.: One day, Bob Bennett walked across the center aisle in the United States Senate and said: Let's go to it. I like your idea of trying to get everybody covered.

Bob Bennett is one of those special people in American politics who continues to believe that we ought to have ideas-driven government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On May 8, Utah Republicans let Bennett know what they thought of his efforts at bipartisanship. He was defeated in his try for a fourth term at the state GOP convention by activists who yelled, among other things, that he didn't love the Constitution enough.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: The anger about what's going on in Washington was simply too powerful to overcome. I am obviously not angry enough.

One of the complaints about me was, we don't see you on CNN, we don't see you on FOX screaming. We don't see you shouting and fighting loud enough. You're sitting back there talking to these people, and we don't want that. We want somebody really up there fighting.

And that's not my style.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But fellow Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who is up for reelection for a second term, sees the Utah outcome differently. He says voters want government's main focus now to be to stop spending and borrowing and what he calls the government takeover of the private sector. He says voters are looking for candidates who agree with that.

SEN. JIM DEMINT: When a Bob Bennett, who everyone said was a conservative Republican, lost, it wasn't that he lost to someone who was further to the right. He lost to someone who talking about constitutional, limited government. I think the fear of voters is starting to have an impact here with Republicans and Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bennett, on the other hand, says the voter anger that defeated him is not a recipe for solving the country's problems.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: The concern I have about the anger that we're seeing that's being fed by talk show hosts and others is, it will be like a wave that comes in and smashes on the beach and destroys everything there, and then recedes back into the ocean, and leaves nothing behind it but empty sand.

MAN: This is the most extreme lack of transparency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: DeMint believes the clamor against government overreach, articulated by the Tea Party groups, is so powerful, that both parties ignore it at their peril.

SEN. JIM DEMINT: We have to cut spending. We have to keep taxes reasonably low. We can't keep adding to the deficit. And I think, if those folks come up here and don't do that, I think you will see them get tossed out the next time, and I think you will see a rebellion back home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bennett sees the Tea Party and other conservative citizens groups as demanding more than he is prepared to do.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I found that a good many of the delegates simply wouldn't talk to me. They were so angry, so determined to -- quote -- "send Washington a message" -- close quote -- that coming to one of my events to hear what I had to say on any of these things was -- simply, they wouldn't do.

And many of them who did come, they would hold up their copy of the Constitution, and they would say, if it's not in the Constitution, you shouldn't do it.

Well, I'm not quite ready to go that far in my conservative views.

JUDY WOODRUFF: DeMint is far more complimentary of the Tea Party agenda. He confirms he is considering endorsing additional challengers to Republican incumbents, as he did in Florida's Senate race. DeMint says what concerns voters has less to do with Republican or Democratic labels and more to do with rising debt and deficits.

SEN. JIM DEMINT: It's more of a commonsense philosophy, more of a balance sheet philosophy, than it is partisan politics at this point. It's not right-left. I don't think these labels are going to work anymore.

There's nothing right or left about balancing the budget or living within your means or not bankrupting our country. I mean, you can't put Republican or Democrat on that. I think, if the Republicans don't get the message after this election, I think it will be an earthquake election.

I think, when we see that the candidates that kind of our party leaders endorsed didn't make it through, but these other candidates who they said could not win in Pennsylvania, in Florida, in Kentucky, when they win, and if we don't get the message then, then I think it's going to require even more aggressive changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bob Bennett says he agrees the Obama administration has overreached in spending and health care.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: My biggest concern is that we are not addressing the real issues. I think politics is divided between the great issues and the great diversions. And we're spending all of the time arguing about the great diversions.

We're in a global world. We have a different kind of economy. Then, demographics -- our country is getting older. The percentage of people in the working force is shrinking. And then, when you add to all of that the entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, you end up with a financial brew -- well, I'm mixing metaphors here -- you end up with a financial circumstance that is unsustainable.

And that's what we should be focusing on, and not arguing about all of the specific mistakes that President Obama is making. Every administration makes specific mistakes that are fun to argue about, but here are the big issues going ignored.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Bennett's partner in a failed bipartisan attempt to reform health care, argues, members of the two parties have to work together, or voters will punish them.

SEN. RON WYDEN: Those who come to Washington in January of 2011 and say, I'm only going to oppose the other side, I'm only going to work to undermine what they would like to do, I think voters will make it very clear that that's not acceptable either. They want solutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Jim DeMint disagrees.

SEN. JIM DEMINT: It is very difficult to work with the Democrats because they're not working for the good of the country. And the Republicans have been partially guilty of that in some ways, but not nearly to the degree. I think this idea of we have got to work together doesn't work anymore.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bob Bennett has an opposite take.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: We need to be very careful, we Republicans. Obviously, this sense of anger works to our benefit, because, if we're going to throw out all of the incumbents, and the Democrats control both houses, why, there are going to be more Democrats to be thrown out.

But we must recognize that anger is not a sound strategy for governing and that, once you are in office, you have to have some solutions. And if we Republicans don't have some solutions, and we just expect anger to keep us in office, after we have won gains in 2010, we will pay a serious price in 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: DeMint argues the members the voters will reject will be the ones who don't stand up for principle and who go along with the other side for more spending.

SEN. JIM DEMINT: Supposedly, after we all pledge to a limited government, we can work together and debate how to do that. But the Democrats have completely forgotten that oath, and so have some Republicans. I hope those Republicans are sent home. And I hope we get some people up here who take their oath of office seriously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With a small, but growing number of conservative victories over the past few months, including one who will take Bob Bennett's Senate seat in Utah, Congress may be closer to a showdown over these competing visions.