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Republicans plot their course for a return to relevance

WASHINGTON — On the gray, soggy morning after the Republican Party's biggest drubbing in 32 years, Grover Norquist eyed the other conservative leaders, many of them dour, some of them angry, crowding his conference room and reminded them of the other times they had gotten their butts kicked on Election Day.

There was Barry Goldwater's devastating defeat in 1964, and the Republican congressional losses of 1974. Jimmy Carter's victory over Gerald Ford in 1976, and Bill Clinton's ouster of George Bush in 1992, when the left cheered the end of the age of Reagan.

Norquist brandished a sheaf of news clippings from those dark days, each intoning the collapse of the conservative movement or the ruination of the Republican Party.

"The story has been written four or five times: 'Now that you're dead, aren't you going to surrender?' " Norquist told them. "No. We've done it before, and we'll do it again."

As Democrats danced in the streets over President-elect Barack Obama's victory last week as well as the victories in Congress that tightened their control on the U.S. Capitol, conservatives began picking up the pieces.

History teaches the pendulum will swing back, of course. Four years after Goldwater, the father of modern conservatism, fell to Lyndon B. Johnson, Republican Richard Nixon won the White House. Four years after Watergate propelled Carter to victory, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide that realigned American politics.

But whether the pendulum swings back in four years or 20 depends on whether Republicans can solve some fundamental problems: They must fill the leadership vacuum created by Sen. John McCain's blowout loss to Obama, reconnect the Republican brand with competence in governance and recruit viable candidates to challenge Democrats in the 50-odd House seats and half-dozen Senate seats the GOP has lost since 2006.

And, perhaps most dauntingly, they must figure out how to rebuild — or replace — the winning coalition of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and defense hawks that helped ensure Republican control of the White House for 20 of the past 28 years. That will require finding an agreeable way to balance GOP principles with pragmatism, and to adapt, somewhat, to the changing taste of the American electorate.

After Tuesday, with a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is essentially a party of the South and the inter-mountain West, and even there Democrats made inroads. Obama flipped eight states that President Bush won in 2004, including Republican mainstays such as North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana and Colorado.

"You can be a regional party that is pure, or you can be a national party that is relevant in all 50 states and still pass the Ivory soap test. But it requires some to give up on that six-tenth of a percent of purity," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, who is stepping down from his post as chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 job.

"You can't hope to retake the majority with a message that is not relevant and resonates across the whole country. And so it's going to be important that the party move forward on issues that are its first principles, but that are principles that a broader swath of the nation than say, South Texas, thinks is important."

• • •

As of last week, the Republicans have zero House members from New England, zero U.S. senators from the West Coast, and just three senators from the Northeast — two of them moderates from Maine who frequently draw the ire of conservative activists.

Virginia has two Democratic senators for the first time in 30 years and voted for a Democratic president for the first time since Johnson in 1964.

Democrats padded their margins in the House and Senate not only by winning in squishy states like Connecticut but by beating Republicans in once ruby-red districts in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Arizona, Virginia and Colorado.

Take Republican Reps. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado and Bill Sali, who represents western Idaho. Christian conservatives and valiant veterans of the culture wars, no one was going to outflank them on the right on social issues like opposing gay marriage and abortion.

But both were undone by moderate Democrats who convinced voters that they and the Democratic Party were better suited to fix the economy and move the nation in a new direction.

Many moderate Republicans say their party needs to relearn how to make room for those who might disagree on policy points, even on big ones like gay marriage, gun control and foreign policy, but whose political philosophy is generally conservative. And the GOP needs to run campaigns that show that.

George LeMieux, a Republican political consultant in Florida who assembled Gov. Charlie Crist's winning — and quite centrist — campaign in 2006, said, "We have got to get back to the Reagan big tent."

"President-elect Obama ran a center-right message in his campaign," LeMieux said. "He attacked John McCain on taxes, which has always been our issue. In rural parts of Florida, he ran ads that said Obama would not take away Second Amendment rights. He did not run a liberal campaign. He ran a center-right campaign. Center is the key word."

• • •

Whereas the Democrats appear united behind Obama, with only residual hard feelings among supporters of his chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the various factions of the Reagan coalition never fully melded behind McCain after the Republican primary, though his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped.

"You have the (Mike) Huckabee-Palin wing vs. the (Mitt) Romney wing and then elements of the (Rudy) Giuliani wing," Putnam said. "And so there's a vacuum at the top for what national Republican can bring those groups back together."

At the heart of the disagreement, of course, is what kind of party the Republican Party should be as it rebuilds. For now, the inertia seems to favor the conservative wing.

Many conservatives argue that recent GOP losses weren't because the party wasn't inclusive enough but because it wasn't conservative enough. Runaway spending and ballooning deficits, along with a series of embarrassing fumbles by the Bush administration, from mishandling Hurricane Katrina to politicizing the Justice Department to huge miscalculations about the war in Iraq, have stripped Republicans of the right to claim they are the party of smaller, more efficient and accountable government.

The perception that Bush failed to govern well — despite all he did for other conservative causes — clearly hurt McCain's bid to replace him. "It takes a huge amount of work to manage the federal government," Norquist said of Bush. "He seemed to think he could let it manage itself. So you know what it does if you let it manage itself? It grows like cancer."

Before Republicans will be allowed to lead again, they must show they can govern competently, or at least better than the other guy. Given the fact they won't run any segment of the federal government after Jan. 20, that's going to be difficult.

So party leaders plan to highlight Republicans who are succeeding outside Washington, governors like Charlie Crist of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and, yes, Palin. In Congress, Republicans say they plan to offer practical counters to Democratic initiatives or, if possible, to influence them.

"We really have to dust ourselves off, get back in the fight, and really start offering superior alternatives that make the case one issue at a time, so that we can win the people's trust back," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.

The exact course the party will set over the next few months, before it gears up for the 2010 congressional races, is far from set, but here's a hint: The Republican Study Committee, a coalition of the most conservative members of the U.S. House, lost a handful of members Tuesday, but it apparently gained a few, too. The group should start the 111th Congress in January with about 108 members, roughly the same as they had before.

Given the fact that Republicans lost seats overall in the House, members of the RSC will make up a majority of GOP House members, giving them more sway than ever to pick the minority party's leaders and priorities.

Two RSC leaders, including its chairman, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, and Mike Pence of Indiana, a former talk radio host who is a favorite of social conservatives, are vying to replace Putnam as chairman of the House Republican Conference, which crafts the party's message.

A third RSC member, Eric Cantor of Virginia, is a favorite to replace Roy Blunt of Missouri, the more moderate Republican who has served as whip, the No. 2 post, for the past decade. After Tuesday's trouncing, Blunt, too, announced he wouldn't seek the job again.

It was the RSC that led the revolt against President Bush's $700-billion Wall Street rescue plan and could seek to further define themselves in opposition to too much government involvement in shoring up the economy.

That makes moderates, who have watched their numbers dwindle, nervous.

"It doesn't suggest a move to the center," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "It's basically saying we weren't conservative enough, we compromised too much, and we don't care what the state of fiscal crisis is in the country, we're not going to go for some expansion of government's role ... because we're no longer going to have America see us as the party that sold out.

"That's one route to take today. And it's based in the mythology that states that Ronald Reagan is the lodestar here, and then we lost it all with the two Bushes because they basically acted like Democrats. It's mythology, because Reagan, as strongly conservative as he was, was also a pragmatist who cut deals every day."

Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

Republicans plot their course for a return to relevance 11/08/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 8:08pm]
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