The Republicans Are Still Looking for a Leader

Without fresh, concrete ideas, the Republican Party won't be able to make the case that the GOP can fix the nation's vast problems. Angry anti-Obama rhetoric is simply not enough

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Photo Illustration by Wes Duvall for TIME

Barack Obama's poll numbers may be down and the economy struggling, but the Republican Party still lacks the concrete ideas it once had. Angry anti-Obama rhetoric is not enough to make the case that the GOP can fix the nation's vast problems. Even more important, in difficult times voters require a flesh-and-blood alternative to provide leadership and reassurance, or they'll stick with what they've got.

But at this crucial moment, one party honcho after another has eliminated himself as a plausible spokesman. The latest gaffe of party chief Michael Steele — saying the Afghan conflict is a war of Obama's choosing — rendered him, once and for all, irrelevant. The normally low-key House Republican leader John Boehner opted to go toe to toe with the President in late June and came up on the losing side after he suggested that the financial crisis Obama inherited was no bigger than an "ant." The top GOP man in the Senate, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, is a strong inside player but is well aware that he will never be a persuasive public advocate.

The party's possible 2012 presidential candidates are either too polarizing to sway swing voters (Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich) or inclined to lie low this year (Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour). Other congressional leaders are far too green or unskilled to mount or keep their balance on the national stage.

The presidential megaphone can almost always drown out the competition, even if the Republicans get their act together and unite over a "Lower taxes, less government" mantra. Unless the GOP — quickly — finds an appealing, aggressive and competent face for itself, Obama is going to have an easier time protecting his Democratic allies and shoring up his own strength than the polls currently suggest.