The Floundering GOP Looks for a Turnaround

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Left; Brendan Smialowski / Getty: Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP: Thomas Cain / Getty

From left: Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, House minority leader John Boehner and Governor Sarah Palin

As if losing 21 House seats, eight Senate seats and the White House in November weren't bad enough, the GOP hasn't exactly thrived in its first few months as the party of opposition.

Its government-is-the-problem response to President Obama's first joint address to Congress by one of the party's rising stars, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, was a "disaster for the Republican Party," as conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks put it. The installation of a new party chairman, Michael Steele, could have gone a lot smoother — say, minus the cat fight with Rush Limbaugh or Steele's insulting both the party's moderate wing (he threatened to back primary opponents for supporters of Obama's stimulus) and its social conservatives (he told GQ magazine that abortion is an "individual choice"). The party's 2008 vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, has been drawing headlines more suited to Britney Spears than the party's heir apparent as she feuds with the father of her daughter's baby. And two unpopular figures from the last Administration, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush adviser Karl Rove, have rarely missed an opportunity to attack the new President. Most recently, House Republican leaders botched the rollout of the party's budget alternative, and then, naturally, blamed one another for it. (See pictures of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston.)

Essentially leaderless, lacking a cohesive message and fighting among themselves, Republicans appear to be in disarray, raising the question: Has the party bottomed out yet? (See the rise of Bobby Jindal.)

Bottom, of course, is a subjective term. But most Republican strategists claim to see at least a few signs of new life, even if a spring awakening is still a ways off. "The last few months have not been so hot for us, but our guys understand that, and they are working on a way out of it," says Ron Bonjean, a strategist for the GOP's House and Senate leadership. After losing the House in 1994, Democrats took more than a decade to form an effective opposition; even with the advantage of a Democrat in the White House until 2001, Bonjean notes, they were unable to present a united front until President George W. Bush's second term. "We'll know the GOP is firing on all cylinders when both the House and Senate leaders and members are all saying the same thing," he says.

Perhaps, but it's not at all clear that internal divisions are the biggest problem. So far, in fact, unity of the congressional conferences has been one of the party's stronger suits: House Republicans voted unanimously to reject Obama's stimulus package and budget, and the Senate lost only a handful of members on the votes. "I think the Republican Party has hit the lowest point," says former House majority leader Dick Armey. "They're on their way back. It's already evident in the show of unity on the votes on the stimulus and the budget." (Read "Why Would a Governor Spurn Stimulus Money?")

Republicans could take a cautionary lesson from the Democrats' 12 years in the minority. "The Democrats in 2000 and 2001 were effectively labeled the 'party of no' because they had no plans of their own whenever they were asked why they opposed something," Bonjean says. "GOP leaders recognize that pitfall. That's why they tried to come up with a budget, for all that it was rolled out ineffectively."

That may be an understatement. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan was frustrated when GOP leaders, ahead of schedule, rolled out a "blueprint" of his alternative budget without consulting him. The broad outline was deemed a flop because it lacked specifics, and Ryan and the leaders engaged in some public finger-pointing, effectively stepping on the substance of the detailed plan when it was released a week later. As former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie noted in a National Review editorial, the GOP should expect to be mocked in the media these days. "It was Barack Obama who proved that a candidate has the ability to disseminate facts and a message to millions of voters directly," wrote Gillespie, a former adviser to President Bush. "Republicans need to turn this tide, and fast."

The budget is crucial, and not just because the country's troubled economy has more than ever put the spotlight on government spending. Along with strong defense and social issues, fiscal conservatism is one of the three pillars of the Reagan Republican coalition; yet thanks to the free-spending Bush years, it's also the one with which the party has the least credibility.

"The Republicans have really badly lost their bearing on that issue," Armey says. "It's absurd that they'd ever allow themselves to devolve into a circumstance where Democrats are more trusted than we are [on government spending]. And President Bush has to be held principally responsible for that. You cannot lead with your chin on social issues; they tried that a few years ago and got themselves in trouble," he says, referring to episodes like the Terri Schiavo controversy, when Congress tried to prevent a brain-dead woman in Florida from being taken off life support.

Still, at a time when most Americans continue to be anxious about their jobs and the economic future, pushing to shrink deficits and the size of government may not be a winning message. The Republican budget was roundly criticized by a wide range of economists for promising to freeze all discretionary spending for five years, much in the way that conservative governors like Palin, Jindal and South Carolina's Mark Sanford were attacked (in some cases by their own base) for threatening to reject — and in Sanford's case actually rejecting — some of Washington's stimulus dollars. As Congress takes up health-care reform, the party will face a similar dilemma about how best to challenge Democrats over an issue on which most Americans are expecting more, not less, help from Washington.

It also can't comfort Republicans that Obama's approval ratings remain high. The President was so popular during the first month of his Administration that the GOP didn't directly criticize him, saving their fire for the softer targets of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. (See who's who in Obama's White House.)

"Obviously, we're in the midst of Obama's honeymoon, which makes for a tough environment for Republicans," says Alex Conant, a senior adviser to the Republican National Committee. "But we're making progress toward reclaiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility, which is a first step toward rebuilding."

Polls have yielded some hints of hope for Republicans. Several recent surveys show the GOP neck in neck with Democratic candidates, or trailing only slightly, in generic congressional matchups — a vast improvement from last year, when they lagged by double digits — and even winning Independents. "Last year we lost races we should have won, including Speaker Hastert's seat and the Mississippi special election," says Doug Heye, a GOP strategist. "Now Republicans are competitive in more races and are now tied in the generic ballot despite President Obama's popularity."

"The party has a ways to go," laments Phyllis Schlafly, a veteran conservative activist and founder of the conservative Eagle Forum. Schlafly says she takes hope from the grass-roots "tea parties" being organized against massive government spending across the country. One event in Chicago last week even boasted of turning away GOP chairman Steele, with organizers declaring they'd prefer not to have any elected officials at center stage.

There is little denying that the voting public's overall view of Republicans is much worse than it is of Democrats; a recent CBS News/New York Times poll gave the Democrats a 56% national approval rating, compared with the GOP's 31%. Most problematic is that the Republican Party still lacks an effective leader — House minority leader John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell don't exactly stir up a crowd — and it has a long way to go before it's in striking position to win back majorities in Congress. Judging by the Democrats' most recent model, the GOP is five months into a 12-year sentence. On the other hand, that's not bad compared with another historical parallel: the 40 years the party spent in the cold thanks to F.D.R.

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