Tough Love for the GOP

Washington Matters

Tough Love for the GOP

I'd been thinking that Republicans would be doing themselves a disservice if they convinced themselves that getting drubbed in the elections was due mostly to the wretched economy and the extreme unpopularity of President Bush. While those things were certainly important factors, it's the persona of the party as a whole that is the GOP's biggest problem -- and now I've got some important company in saying Republicans will just marginalize themselves further until they take some bold steps to rebuild the party.


Charlie Cook, the respected analyst behind the Cook Political Report, all but turned his regular column in the National Journal over to two veteran Republican consultants to give them a chance to offer some tough love advice to party officeholders -- anonymously so they could be utterly frank.

They offer quite different types of advice. One looks at the GOP's image and challenges broadly and offers equally broad suggestions, such as focusing on creative, pragmatic solutions to national problems. The other focuses on very specific policy issues, such as tackling immigration realistically to avoid alienating huge parts of the electorate.

But both agree on some key points: Republicans are appealing to an increasingly narrow slice of the electorate and are increasingly seen as opposing change but offering little or no leadership. This is how the first consultant sized up the party's situation: "Republicans are a whole lot better at being against things than at being for things....On topics that the center really cares about, such as education and health care, we do one of two things. We either avoid them like the plague and are scared to talk about them or, if we say anything at all, it is to propose a tax cut or a tax credit."

These are good points, but I think lying just beneath the surface is a common fear: that the conservative base of the party is in denial about its circumstances and flaws. It keeps hammering at issues and themes that have preoccupied it for years despite the fact they simply don't interest, much less inspire, the broader swath of the public.

In other words, like a compulsive gambler who thinks the next big hand will make him well, Republicans simply haven't bottomed out yet. And conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks predicts they won't until they becomes virtually irrelevant to the national political debate. In a column written shortly after Barack Obama's victory, Brooks describes a post-election Repubican Party at war with itself -- traditionalists who believe the GOP has strayed from conservative values vs. reformers who think Republicans have to recognize the way the country is changing and adapt.

With no hesitation or hedging Brooks says flatly the traditionalists will win, in the short term, because they control the Republican side of public debate in Washington, the party's institutions and even the GOP's mythology. "The Republican Party will probably veer right in the years ahead, and suffer more defeats," he writes. "Then, finally, some new Reformist donors and organizers will emerge. They will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas, and the cycle of conservative ascendance will begin again."

All of the intramural debate among party leaders in the past month points to Brooks being right. But while it might be a necessary bottoming-out process, that's a shame. This country is on the verge of enormous change and will be making some crucial choices in the months ahead that we will be living with years, if not decades. It needs to hear constructive, creative and thoughtful voices from all corners. It needs the influence of a loyal and pragmatic opposition that insists on helping to make those choices, not loud and pointless heckling from the peanut gallery.