The Forum - 12/30/2008
Since Nov. 4, Republicans have been gallantly trying to put a happy, or at least hopeful, face on the party’s dismal condition. While it’s not a matter of life support, it is looking more and more like political wasting disease.
By any honest measure, Republicans took a beating on Election Day. Presidential candidate John McCain never found his footing. His choice for vice president, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had thoughtful Republican loyalists questioning his judgment after their initial swoon. His response to the nation’s financial crisis was uneven and amateurish, and was a significant factor in his loss. He pandered to the far right, which long-time McCain admirers saw as out of character and independents saw as a cynical sellout.
A weak presidential candidate created no coattail effect for Republicans running for seats in Congress. Democrats increased their margin in the House and got within one seat of a veto-proof majority in the Senate.
The nation rejected traditional Republican themes and elected a relatively unknown liberal senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who promptly moved toward the middle by naming key advisers with reputations as pragmatists, not ideologues. In the process Obama won praise from conservative Republicans, who had been working against his election.
What now for the GOP? Party thinkers and strategists have no roadmap. Some want the party to return to its small-government, no-taxes, family-values orthodoxy. Others are urging a big-tent change, by which Republicans can attract the right-of-center independents who tipped for Obama in November. The contest is for the soul of the party, and the outcome will determine whether Republicans can regain influence in 2010 and 2012 or be exiled to the political wilderness for a generation or more.
Right now the GOP is a minority party being run by a minority within the party – the right wing. The election results reveal a former national party that has become regional, centered mostly in the South. Democrats dominate all of New England, most of the mid-Atlantic, the Great Lakes states and the West Coast. Obama had significant support in the Southwest and even in the Plains states. If Republicans want to be a national political party, they must broaden their diminished appeal.
The future for the Senate, for example, doesn’t look good for Republicans. New Hampshire’s Sen. Judd Gregg is the only major Republican left standing in that former GOP stronghold. His seat is up in 2010. Look for Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to be in trouble if Democrats recruit good candidates.
Probably the only hope Republicans have for 2010 is a failure of the new Obama administration to lift the nation out of recession. That perverse strategy puts the GOP in the awkward and dangerous position of wishing harm on the nation to advance their political agenda. And if Obama characterizes Republicans as obstructionists and opportunists, Republicans will lose again.
Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.