The Republican Party's Lost Six Months

GOP still searching for identity after half year in political wilderness.

ByRick Klein
July 08, 2009, 7:29 PM

WASHINGTON, July 9, 2009 -- 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 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.

The party held together to win an early national-security skirmish, forcing Obama to change course on his plans for prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Republicans stayed unified during the debate over a stimulus package that's growing less popular with the public, and GOP leaders are gearing up for a defining fight over health care reform.

A younger generation of Capitol Hill leaders has begun to emerge. Task forces are producing GOP policy alternatives. Republicans have also had a series of recruiting successes in 2010 races, nabbing top-tier Senate challengers just this week in New Hampshire and Illinois, for example.

"There's two different worlds going on," Bonjean said.

National figures such as Palin, Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are "causing all kinds of news that isn't necessarily good for Republicans. On the other side you have Republican members of Congress who are working on cohesive messaging," he said.

One recurring problem for Republicans, however, is how to frame that messaging.

Some in the party have responded to calls for Republicans to put forward ideas with white papers and new legislation; others have greeted such efforts with eye-rolls, since they are extremely unlikely to have an impact on policies.

"I'm one of those who believe that saying 'no' is enough," said GOP strategist Carl Forti. "And that Republicans should be the 'party of no' and oppose everything that President Barack Obama is doing. And that's enough."

In the ongoing search for bright spots, emerging debates over health care and energy may give the GOP a chance to find new footing.

"I think people are beginning to pay more attention to us," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former two-time Republican presidential candidate, said on's "Top Line" Wednesday.

"The Republican Party is down. We've been sent to the woodshed," he said. "We're rethinking our positions. We're not changing our policies, but we're trying to apply our principles to the situation that exists today. And when you look at our plan for nuclear power, for housing, our various health care plans, our attitude on national defense, I think people in this country are growing much more comfortable with a check and balance. ... And that means more Republicans elected next year."

There is an even brighter spot: The knowledge that the 2010 elections are still more than a year away.

"You're going to have the best voices of the Republican Party emerge," Bonjean said. "But we're in for a roller-coaster ride."

"We're going to peak in November of 2010," Issa said.

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