Getting GOP back on track

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / November 26, 2008
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THE GOP is in a muddle, and with good reason.

In 2006, Republicans suffered what George W. Bush aptly called a thumping. This month, there followed a dumping, with the GOP ousted from the executive branch.

So what do you do with a sunken party, one whose base has been whittled down to the South, the Plains, and parts of the interior West?

Some Republicans insist the cure for electoral hypothermia is to march resolutely into the Arctic. As they see it, the reason Republicans lost is they abandoned their principles; return to true conservatism and voters will flock back.

That's the refrain of social conservatives like Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, as well as various right-wing commentators. It's entirely predictable, for no one ever wants to admit their problem might just be their ideology.

Still, this is not just routine rationalization. It's foolishness on horseback.

"I was stunned after the election to read comments by some of my conservative colleagues in the Senate and some conservative pundits that the problem was that we weren't conservative enough," says US Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. "There is no way you can look at the election results across the country and reach that conclusion."

Conservatives who prescribe a rightward tack insist that the US remains a center-right country. After all, exit polls showed that 44 percent of voters call themselves moderates, 34 percent conservative, and 22 percent liberal.

That, however, overlooks the critical issue of how the moderates vote. This time, they favored Barack Obama over John McCain by 60 percent to 39 percent, notes Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News.

Further, though there was no party identification gap in 2004, this time 39 percent of voters said they were Democrats, compared with 32 percent who said Republican.

The plight of the GOP in New England offers a clear window into the party's larger problems. On Election Day, US Representative Chris Shays, the Connecticut moderate, lost his seat, as did more conservative Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire. In 2006, moderate Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee suffered the same fate. They lost not because voters desired more conservative candidates, but because of a backlash against the national GOP.

This year, Collins, who enjoys a reputation as a commonsensical, results-oriented senator, holds a singular distinction: She was the only Republican running for federal office in New England to win. Thus she bears listening to.

"Unfortunately, the Republican Party is perceived as being a party that just says no as opposed to a party that is offering constructive, positive alternatives to Democratic plans," she says. "We have to become more relevant to the day-to-day concerns that people have. That means offering solutions on problems like healthcare, climate change, and a host of other issues."

Sensible Republicans might also want to abandon the party's fixation with protecting tax cuts for a small slice of upper-earners and focus instead on shoring up the middle class. They might conclude that it's time to jettison wrong-headed notions that deficits don't matter and that tax cuts pay for themselves, and return to the prudent Main Street Republicanism of years past.

They might abandon a good-versus-evil view of the world and embrace a foreign policy based on a sober evaluation of global complexities.

They might conclude that economic and fiscal issues should take precedence over social issues - and that the GOP can't be a big, tolerant tent if conservative zealots try to veto those whose views don't conform to theirs.

"What binds the GOP together should not be the social issues as much as economic issues and governing issues," says Ron Kaufman, White House political director under President George H.W. Bush.

They might rue the role ridiculous ranting figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and their lesser imitators (now there's a concept for you) have arrogated to themselves as what we'll loosely call Republican thought leaders.

And if they don't?

Well, it's going to be a long, rocky road back to relevance.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail is

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