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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"A Wakeup Call For The GOP"; But Don't Expect It To Answer.

A wakeup call for the GOP
By Don Balz

How much more can the Republicans take? Demoralized, shrinking and seemingly lacking an agenda beyond the word “no,” Republicans yesterday saw their ranks further thinned with the stunning news that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is switching parties and will run for reelection in 2010 as a Democrat.

Specter is worried about his own survival — and particularly a primary challenge from the right. Many in the GOP might say good riddance. After supporting President Obama's stimulus package, Specter was persona non grata in his own party. So it may be easy for some Republicans to conclude that they are better off without people like Arlen Specter.

But his defection is a reminder that the Republican Party continues to contract, especially outside the South, and that it appears increasingly less welcome to politicians and voters who do not consider themselves solidly conservative. Northeast Republicans have gone from an endangered species to a nearly extinct species. Republicans lost ground in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest in the last two elections. That's no way to build a national party.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the depth of the party's problems. Just 21 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans. That's the lowest since the fall of 1983, when just 19 percent identified themselves as Republicans. Party identification does fluctuate with events. But as a snapshot indicator, the latest figures highlight the impact of Obama's opening months on the Republican Party. From a high-water mark of 35 percent in the fall of 2003, Republicans have slid steadily to their present state of affairs. It's just not as cool to be a Republican as it once was.

The Republicans have many demographic challenges as they plot their comeback. Obama has attracted strong support from young voters and Latinos — two keys to the future for both parties and once part of the GOP's calculation for sustaining themselves in power. Suburban voters have moved toward the Democrats. Specter can see that problem acutely in the suburbs around his home in Philadelphia. Obama is also holding a solid advantage among independents, the proxy measure for the center or swing portion of the electorate.

Reihan Salam, co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save America, said this week that the danger for Republicans is to believe they now represent a vast, silent majority that is waiting to reassert itself. A louder voice from a smaller cadre of supporters is not the answer, he warned. That will just prevent Republicans from reassessing their old agenda, developing new ideas and once again learning to reach out broadly.

The Post-ABC News poll points to the progress Republicans have not made since Obama was sworn in last January. The approval rating for congressional Republicans has slipped from 38 percent in February to 30 percent today. Congressional Democrats have seen their support drop too, but still remain 15 points higher than the Republicans.

More discouraging for a party trying to pick itself up after two bad elections is the wide gulf in public trust between the President and congressional Republicans. Sixty percent of the country trusts Obama to make the right decisions for the country's future — but just 21 percent trust Republicans in Congress.

Despite their solid opposition to the President's economic and budgetary policies, Republicans in Congress have seen this trust quotient decline eight points since January. A CBS News-New York Times poll found that 70 percent of Americans believe Republicans have opposed those policies for political reasons, rather than because GOP lawmakers genuinely believe the policies are bad for the economy.

In the first 99 days of the Obama administration, it has sometimes felt like the Republicans have had a different “leader” each day. Last week the leader of the party was Dick Cheney, attacking Obama for his decision to end the harsh interrogation techniques on some terrorist suspects and to release Justice Department memos outlining those procedures.

Earlier, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour have taken the spotlight. Rush Limbaugh? He too led the Republicans for a week last winter. Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman? He was pretty visible for a time earlier this year, wasn't he? The list goes on. Don't forget Newt Gingrich or the two elected “leaders” in Congress: House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

That tells you something. At this moment when the journalistic world is awash with assessments of President Obama's opening months in office, it's useful to reflect on one reason for his strong start: he has been blessed with weak opposition. The Republicans may be united, but they have yet to find a leader who resonates beyond their conservative base or an agenda that attracts real support.

The way back will require both strategic thinking and some luck. Obama has put so much in motion that, say some savvy conservatives, it's almost inevitable that some initiatives will fail. Daniel Casse, a conservative strategist, believes by this time next year, Republicans may have any number of opportunities for taking on Obama that will look more attractive to the voters. But he hardly underestimates Obama's formidable skills as a politician.

For Republicans, the gubernatorial races in 2010 will showcase some of the party's beyond-the-Beltway up and comers. That group includes Jindal, despite his poor performance delivering the Republican response to Obama's speech to Congress earlier this year and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who has caught the eye of some prominent Democratic strategists.

Those 2010 races will also give some shrewd Republican policy entrepreneurs the chance to incubate some new ideas for the party — ideas that can reach beyond the conservative base and offer a way forward. If there are people ready to seize the opportunity.

Republicans have been on a downward slide for the past four years, a decline that began not long after the reelection of former president George W. Bush in 2004. Many Republicans have blamed most of the party's problems on Bush's leadership. But the problems go deeper than any one person. Specter's shocking departure may provide a wakeup call to Republicans that a broad reassessment is now urgently needed.

Don Balz covers politics for The Washington Post.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I blame this situation on George W. Bush and Republican leadership. Sen. Specter has never been a conservative and could never be counted on to support the party's core values. If they handn't been coddling hmi just because he could win all these years, he wouldn't be there to defect now. In fact, had W not thrown himself in the last race at the last minute, Toomey would be the incumbent, not the Republican primary challenger.

8:51 AM  

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