Republicans, bless their hearts, have provided more than their share of spectacle in the first hundred days of the Obama administration.We've seen awkward attempts by GOP leaders to distance themselves from radio host Rush Limbaugh while trying not to offend the acerbic mischief-maker or his followers. We've witnessed family feuds and political missteps that are making even conservatives wonder if Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has a national future.
President Obama's $787 billion economic recovery package has set Republicans against each other every which way: governor vs. governor, governor vs. state legislators, governors vs. members of Congress.
The never-boring national party chairman, Michael Steele, has offered up a series of surprises and shifts (including for and against legal abortion, and for GOP revival in the Northeast but not so much for GOP moderates who can win there).
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), has called for Americans to stage a revolution against "economic Marxism." (Or are we "on the road to fascism
," as Fox News host Glenn Beck posited earlier this month?)
Meghan McCain, meanwhile, seems determined to top her dad and maybe even Limbaugh when it comes to stirring the pot. The self-described progressive Republican, age 24, triggered a mini-frenzy when she wrote a Daily Beast column calling Ann Coulter, grand dame of the flame-thrower faction, "offensive, radical, insulting and confusing
." She told the gay Log Cabin Republicans group recently that she supports "full equality" for gay Americans.
Steve Schmidt, top strategist for Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, told the same group that it's a "terrible inequity" to deny anyone the responsibilities and happiness of marriage. He also said it's out of step with conservative principles and growing sentiment in the country --- prompting Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, to retort: "Why would anyone take his advice on how to win elections?"
The latest sign of Republican disarray is Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's stunning announcement that he's becoming a Democrat. This is a party in an uneasy place between implosion and recovery, and it doesn't seem to be getting any closer to the latter.
Obama's 53-46 electoral win last year was the most decisive in 20 years. He is enjoying the highest first-quarter job approval rating, 63 percent, since Jimmy Carter hit 69 percent in 1977, according to Gallup.
Only 20 percent in a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll
said they are Republicans. And the declining GOP share of minorities and young voters --- two rapidly expanding groups --- suggests the party needs to do some serious rethinking.
So how's that going?
Let's see. At a forum, six candidates for national party chairmen are asked to name the greatest Republican president. Abraham Lincoln, anyone? Teddy Roosevelt? All six pick Ronald Reagan. "Everybody got that one right," says moderator Grover Norquist, head of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform.
Some Republicans say enough already with the fixation on Reagan and rosy memories that don't track with reality. "He cut taxes but he also raised taxes, and he wasn't that great on spending," says GOP strategist John Feehery. "He was a pragmatist and that was his greatest legacy."
Yet the Reagan playbook still rules. With the country peering over a financial abyss, Republicans are preaching smaller government, lower taxes, less spending and letting the free market work its magic.
The pitch is heavy on audacity and light on credibility, given that former president George W. Bush turned a $236 billion budget surplus into a trillion-dollar-plus deficit with nary a discouraging word from congressional Republicans.
They've been far less reticent regarding Obama, though polls show he is twice as popular as they are. Not a single House Republican voted for his economic recovery package, taking on not just the president but also economists across the spectrum and constituents in need. GOP leaders said it had too much spending and not enough tax cuts.
House Republican Whip Eric Cantor is continuing the theme with an "economic solutions" website
. Doesn't matter which cartoon drawing you click, the answer is almost always tax cuts --– for families, investors, seniors, corporations, responsible homeowners, small businesses, the unemployed and people saving for college.
April also brought colonial-style tax protests modeled on the Boston Tea Party. The message, as articulated by former House speaker Newt Gingrich: "No on big spending, no on big deficits, no on tax increases."
Never mind that the protests came a couple of weeks after most Americans started getting the "make work pay" tax cut Obama promised in his campaign. A couple of days after Gallup said 48 percent of Americans
think the amount of taxes they pay is "about right" --- "one of the most positive assessments Gallup has measured since 1956" --- and six in 10 Americans said their tax burden is fair.
"I'm not sure who these tea parties see as being King George," chief economic adviser Larry Summers said on NBC.
It is true that better-off Americans can expect a tax hike in 2011, when Bush's tax cuts expire. But that's a rollback Obama promised in his campaign and opposing it is not a recipe to expand GOP appeal. In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, asked about their fiscal priorities, only 22 percent said they favored "tax cuts for upper-income individuals."
Republicans have a better target in Obama's proposed cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions. Senate Republican campaign chief John Ensign sent out a fundraising pitch tarring it as a "national energy sales tax" that will increase prices for "gas, electricity and just about everything."
Conservatives are also having fun with Obama's call last week for agencies to find $100 million in savings. That's a .0025% budget "cut," the House Republican Study Committee said, and accused Obama of "confusing empty symbolism with fiscal responsibility."
Maybe it is empty symbolism. But it won't seem so empty if Obama pursues serious entitlement reform later in his term, as he has pledged to do. In any case it's not exactly a major Democratic screw-up that will catapult Republicans back into power.
Some Republicans, such as former party chairman Rich Bond, say Democratic screw-ups are inevitable and the main thing the party needs to do is wait. But that won't fix the more basic, longer-term problem: On major matters, including economic policy and social attitudes, the GOP is out of step with huge chunks of the electorate.
"We are steadily losing big constituencies and if we don't radically change our philosophy and make it more forward-looking, we are going to continue to lose," Feehery says. "We need to think wholesale about how we reform government so it works better for citizens."
Stuart Butler, domestic policy director for the conservative Heritage Foundation, says Republicans are right to stress fiscal discipline and contrast their vision with Obama's $3.5 trillion budget blueprint. But he says they also need to offer solid proposals and influence the national debate.
Republicans should start by floating ideas on health care, Butler says, such as a coverage system modeled on the existing program for federal employees: the government sets up what amounts to a shopping mall in which insurance companies present their plans in a standardized format so consumers can compare them.
If Republicans step up, Butler says, they could force compromises and help produce a bipartisan achievement . "If they just vote against it and it passes, what are they left with?"
Al From, who founded the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985 to promote mainstream ideas and candidates, says Republicans have the same problem Democrats had back then. "They're being defined by their extremes," he says. "That's what happened to us. We lost our values of representing ordinary people, of standing for things people cared about."
The DLC looked to states and cities for ideas. "If we had just listened to the Washington agenda," From says, "we would not have done welfare reform, charter schools, reinventing government or community policing."
The GOP counts some popular governors notable for their pragmatism. They include California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida's Charlie Crist, two of the most visible supporters of the Obama recovery package, along with Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Huntsman, a member of the Mormon church, recently came out in favor of civil unions and led a drive to "normalize" alcohol laws; as of July 1 people won't have to buy a private-club membership to get into a bar.
Daniels, a onetime Reagan aide who was George W. Bush's budget director, has focused on improving government services and efficiency. Governing Magazine last year named him one of its eight public officials of the year
. The Ripon Society, a moderate GOP group, features him this month i
n an article called "The Reformer."
Even as Obama turned Indiana blue for the first time since 1964 with a hard-fought 50-to-49-percent victory, Daniels was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote. That's a result Republicans can believe in, and maybe plumb for some helpful hints on the road back.