Democratic advances put Republicans on the ropes

WASHINGTON -- Beyond the prospect of a Democratic president and a more Democratic Congress, Republicans faced headlines Wednesday such as "The Conservative Crack-Up" and "Obama Administration Survival Guide."

Republicans agree they're in bad shape after Democrat Barack Obama's decisive win over Republican John McCain. But they are sharply divided when it comes to the path ahead.

One group says the party needs to recommit to its first principles: less regulation, smaller government and lower taxes.

"Our problem is not that our views aren't acceptable, it's that many in our party have abandoned the very principles that once drew Americans to trust us," former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who ran for president this year and may well try again, told his supporters.

Or, as House GOP leader John Boehner told colleagues Wednesday, "America remains a center-right country. Democrats should not make the mistake of viewing Tuesday's results as a repudiation of conservatism."

Another group is pressing the GOP to develop new ideas and more relevance. "We need to think about how to apply our principles to the problems of the contemporary middle class," said Yuval Levin, a former domestic policy aide to President Bush.

Strategist Kevin Madden, a former aide to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said those problems include health care costs, energy and "helping Main Street prosper in a global economy." He said the party has relied too much on gimmicky messages and needs to "master the kitchen table issues that are driving voter anxieties."

The conservative National Review agreed. "Recriminations have their place," the editors said Wednesday, but conservatives' most urgent task is to "devise an agenda — on health care, on taxes, on transportation, on energy — that Americans in the middle of the income distribution can be persuaded serves their interests going forward."

In what the National Review called a clear rejection of the GOP "in its present configuration," Republicans lost at least five Senate seats and 19 House seats along with the White House. The House losses included the last Republican congressman in New England, Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays, and four members from New York and Pennsylvania.

"All the energy is on the right and the center has fallen apart," conservative author Ross Douthat said. Fred Barnes suggested in The Weekly Standard that Republicans give leadership roles to moderates. "But there are no longer many to choose from," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who narrowly survived a challenge this week, pledged to work with Obama on tax cuts, energy security and easing the national debt.

Florida Rep. Adam Putnam, who is stepping down as House Republican Conference chairman, said voters made clear they believe Washington is broken and want to see lawmakers working together to solve problems. He also said that "the Obama administration will set the tone on whether bipartisanship is a priority for them" or whether their approach will be, "If you have the votes, then stuff the minority."

Rich Bond, a former national GOP chairman, said the party "needs to be thoughtful and disciplined and inclusive" — while waiting for Obama and congressional Democrats to overreach and self-destruct.

"They are going to run amok with loony left ideas" within six months, Bond said.

Commentator David Frum sees Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a marker of two divergent Republican paths. He said the vice presidential nominee, whose campaign role was to rally the base, represents a continued focus on that base: white, middle-American, middle-aged, middle-income citizens without college degrees. But Frum, writing in The National Post, said that, ultimately, Republicans will have to compete for college graduates, and that will require "a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy and less polarizing on social issues."

Douthat and others say the Republican brand will be rebuilt by governors, and 2012 speculation about them is well underway. Besides Palin, the most mentioned include Huckabee and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate, and current governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

Jindal, in fact, is slated to inspect flood damage and address a Christian conservative group Nov. 22 — in Iowa, where the 2012 race is likely to begin.