(2 of 6)
As the party has shrunk to its base, it has catered even more to its base's biases, insisting that the New Deal made the Depression worse, carbon emissions are fine for the environment and tax cuts actually boost revenues--even though the vast majority of historians, scientists and economists disagree. The RNC is about to vote on a kindergartenish resolution to change the name of its opponent to the Democrat Socialist Party. This plays well with hard-core culture warriors and tea-party activists convinced that a dictator-President is plotting to seize their guns, choose their doctors and put ACORN in charge of the Census, but it ultimately produces even more shrinkage, which gives the base even more influence--and the death spiral continues. "We're excluding the young, minorities, environmentalists, pro-choice--the list goes on," says Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of two moderate Republicans left in the Senate after Specter's switch. "Ideological purity is not the ticket to the promised land."
Some conservatives think that in the long run, the party will be better off without squishes like Specter muddling the coherence of its brand; a GOP campaign committee celebrated his departure with an e-mail headlined GOOD RIDDANCE, and Limbaugh urged him to take McCain along. Inside this echo chamber, a center-right nation punished Republicans for abandoning their principles, for enabling Bush's spending sprees, for insufficient conservatism. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who has refused to accept $700 million in stimulus cash for his state despite bitter opposition from his GOP-dominated legislature, argues that Chick-fil-A would never let its franchisees cook their chicken however they want; why should the Republican Party let its elected officials promote Big Government? "We're essentially franchisees, and right now nobody has any clue what we're really about," Sanford tells TIME. "You can't wear the jersey and play for the other team!"
No one seems to deny that many Republicans abandoned their principles--especially fiscal responsibility--while in power, but even some across-the-board conservatives see enforced homogeneity as a sure path to oblivion. "Chick-fil-A can get fabulously wealthy with a 20% market share," scoffs Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, President Ronald Reagan's political director. "In our business, you need 50% plus one." It's probably true that since 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans have switched parties, Specter followed them to save his own political skin, but it's hard to see how the mass exodus bodes well for the GOP. You can't have a center-right coalition when you've said good riddance to the center.
Of course, politics can change in a hurry. Three years ago, books like One Party Country and Building Red America were heralding Rove's plan to create a permanent Republican majority. President Barack Obama is popular today, but Democrats in general are not, and they will all face a backlash if they can't reverse this economic tailspin now that they own all the Washington machinery. Tom Cole, a longtime Republican operative turned Oklahoma Congressman, recalls that shortly before the Reagan Revolution, the GOP was in such dire straits, it ran ads declaring that Republicans are people too. "We've lost our way, but we'll find our way back," Cole says. "We'll get back into the idea business, and the Democrats will overreach."