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Still, a 2012 presidential candidate could catch lightning in a bottle, Reagan-style or Susan Boyle--style--although when you think about it, Republicans found a nationally admired war hero with proven bipartisan appeal in 2008, and he lost to an inexperienced black liberal with a funny name. Outside Washington, moderates like Charlie Crist in Florida and Jodi Rell in Connecticut as well as pragmatic conservatives like Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Jon Huntsman in Utah have remained popular despite their brand. They all share an aversion to ideological rigidity: Rell signed a bill legalizing same-sex unions, Crist has pushed an ambitious environmental agenda, Daniels proposed a tax increase, and Huntsman has cautioned Republicans not to obsess about social issues.
There's always the chance that some new issue--immigration? Iran? cap and trade? something nobody has thought of yet?--will blow up and bring the GOP back to life. Maybe one of the new GOP chin-stroking groups will come up with some killer new ideas to help the party reconnect with ordinary Americans. But Republicans know their best hope for recovery, whether they say it like Limbaugh or merely think it, is Democratic failure. Now that Democrats control both Congress and the White House, hubris is a real possibility; it's hard to imagine Obama floating his pitiful plan to cut $100 million in waste--a mere 0.0025% of federal spending--if he had to worry about a formidable opposition.
The problem for Republicans, as the RNC's Steele memorably put it in a TV appearance, is that there's "absolutely no reason, none, to trust our word or our actions." Republicans, after all, proclaimed that President Clinton's tax hikes would destroy the economy, that GOP rule would mean smaller government, that Bush's tax cuts would usher in a new era of prosperity; now the House minority leader says it's "comical" to think carbon dioxide could be harmful, and Steele says the earth is cooling.
Polls show that most Republicans who haven't jumped ship want the party to move even further right; it takes vision to imagine a presidential candidate with national appeal emerging from a GOP primary in 2012. DeMint, the South Carolina Senator, greeted Specter's departure with the astonishing observation that he'd rather have 30 Republican colleagues who believe in conservatism than 60 who don't. "I don't want us to have power until we have principles," DeMint told TIME after firing up that tea-party crowd in Columbia. Voters certainly soured on unprincipled Republicans. But it's not clear they'd like principled Republicans better.
GOP Memories A display at RNC headquarters celebrates the party's history. See photos at time.com/gop