Thursday, December 31, 2009

The GOP’s heavy weather

The Republicans in the Senate got out of Washington fast after the health-care bill got passed without them last week. With some of the most treacherous blizzards to hit the eastern half of the United States lighting up the weather maps the day before Christmas Eve, they admitted defeat was theirs and headed for Reagan National or Dulles.

But as the year ends, the Republicans as a party are flying into potentially heavier weather than the rain and snow that pummeled half the country for the holidays.

In spite of President Obama’s declining approval ratings; uncertainty about two high burn-rate wars; a domestic economy still dependent on the trickle charger of inorganic financial stimulus; and the sudden prospect of terrorism on a new geographic front, the Republicans remain seriously fractured as a party, plagued with scandals, philosophically and generationally divided, with a dogged resistance to outreach to many millions of the Americans they need to win.

The GOP ends 2009 willfully entrenched in a fortress manned by true believers, dead-enders and no one else. They’ve hardened their ideological definition and gone out of their way to alienate anyone outside the frame of their core beliefs. For months now, the Republican Party has been about thinning the herd, seeming to isolate those with a more conciliatory approach to politics — those with a vested interest in being as much loyal as opposition.

The result likely means a Republican Party that’s smaller, older, and more monochromatic and ideologically rigid than it already is.

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Chairman Michael Steele is attempting to ride, or walk, to the rescue. Steele is the signatory of a mass-mailing letter dated “Monday morning” and mailed this week, in an apparent indiscriminate fashion (there’s no other way it could have been, nestled among the bills, in the mailbox of a rock-ribbed Democrat).

“Your immediate action is required,” Steele intones in the four-page letter, which includes a “Registered Survey.” “I am sending out this questionnaire to gauge where you and other grassroots Republicans stand on the critical issues facing our nation — I need to hear back from right away.”

The letter (a battle cry that conveys much the same exhortation we’ve heard at various venues for the Michael Steele Live show) essentially discredits “the Obama agenda” and claims that response to the survey is a linchpin in a new beginning for the GOP. “We have been on the defensive,” Steele says. “In 2010 that all changes.”

Maybe. It’s a given that the Republicans are hoping to duplicate the midterm congressional impact of Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America, when the GOP stormed back into control of Congress in 1994. The discontent the GOP is hoping to exploit this time is largely of its own creation.

The auto and bank bailouts Obama was forced to implement were the concluding step in a process begun or exacerbated in the Bush administration. And Obama inherited the crushing responsibility for the stewardship of two expensive, expansive wars, and the job of undoing the diplomatic damage wrought by eight years of cowboy swagger. All in all, a lot like playing poker when your hand is dealt before you even get to the table.

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Most well-meaning Americans understand this, at some deep intuitive level. They reject the automatic aspect of party identification, the easy ideological label. Especially Republicans. That would explain the results of a Nov. 30 Washington Post poll that found 69 percent of Republican and GOP-leaning independents thought that taking moderate positions on some issues was entirely acceptable.

Some 42 percent of Republicans and independents surveyed thought the Republican party leadership in taking the party in the wrong direction, compared to 23 percent in 2005.

“Republicans are faced with significant discord within their ranks,” wrote Jon Cohen and Dan Balz of The Post. “They are divided over how much to work with Obama on energy and climate-change legislation. There are generational differences on the role of religion in public life and how much emphasis the party should put on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage. And the party's moderate and conservative wings have widely divergent views on a number of issues.”

The Republican leadership hopes the American people’s demand for results, its storied impatience will kick in next year, with an outraged populist rejection of the Obama administration and federal spending levels made necessary by the ruinous practices of the Bush League.

It’s a sad reflection of the vacancy of the current Republican message that once again the GOP is forced to return to defining itself by what it’s opposed to, rather than what it’s in favor of.

It’s a sad commentary that this strategy relies on the belief that the national recall of the origins of our current predicament is so brief, so attuned to the moment, that the American people won’t think back to when the decade really started, in 2001 … and reflect in sorrow and anger at how their lives changed and were changed in seven or eight brutal years, and who was governmentally responsible.

The year 2010 could be much like the year before for the GOP, and for the same reasons. Barack Obama has been president about three weeks short of a year. This nation’s memory of elephants in the White House goes back a hell of a lot further than that.

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