The Republican Party's Lost Six Months

Photo: The Republican Partyâ??s Lost Six Months: GOP still searching for identity, path forward after half year in political wilderness: John Ensign, Mark Sanford, Sarah Palin, Michael Steele

First they lost control of Congress. Then went the White House.

And then things got really bad for the Republican Party.

The first six months of 2009 have been a grand old wipeout for the Grand Old Party.

The party has no real power in Washington, and few obvious national spokespeople. An array of potential presidential candidates have created their own political messes in recent weeks.

Democrats this week took hold of their 60th Senate seat -- removing, at least in theory, the last procedural check Republicans had to guard against Democratic dominance.

All this while fewer Americans consider themselves Republicans than at any time in a generation -- and while President Obama continues to enjoy sky-high popularity ratings. Only 22 percent of respondents considered themselves Republicans in last month's ABC News/Washington Post poll; the figure hadn't been that low since 1982.

Worse than the numbers, party insiders say, is the sense that positive flickers have been extinguished by a series of tabloid-ready storylines. Work that's going on behind the scenes has been eclipsed by scandals that have virtually nothing to do with the task of building up a party from the ashes.

"It's Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown," said Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill leadership aide.

The difficulties of the last few months reflect a larger problem for the Republican Party: Even after two straight losing elections, the party remains deeply divided about how to proceed in an era of Democratic dominance.

Gov. Sarah Palin's bombshell announcement that she's resigning from office left many Republicans mystified -- by Palin's motives, and also by the fact that the party can't seem to drag itself from the woes of its recent past.

Palin's announcement came on the heels of admissions of extramarital affairs of two rising party stars, Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. Those storylines have contributed to a sense of drift inside the GOP.

"Any time that your message appears to be Sanford- or Palin-like, it diminishes what you're trying to accomplish," said Tony Fabrizio, a veteran Republican pollster. "It's been sometimes chaotic, bumpy, but after two elections where we basically got our heads handed to us, not surprising."

The disarray has some Republicans calling for a more extensive housecleaning.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., raised eyebrows this week when he told a group of conservative bloggers that it is time for the party to "throw everything we did wrong under the bus" -- even if that means a full accounting of missteps under Republican control of the White House and Congress.

"You don't get redemption without confession," Issa said.

Issa, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told ABCNews.com that many of his Republican colleagues still won't accept responsibility for runaway spending and expansions of government programs -- key reasons, Issa said, that Republicans have lost standing with the public.

"It's important that we own up to some of the areas where we didn't do a good job," he said.

Among the ironies of the Ensign-Sanford-Palin stories is that they have obscured what some party leaders see as positive signs inside the GOP.

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