Are Republicans Brain Dead?
Political parties aren’t human beings. You can’t hook them to a machine and check their vital signs.
But when a party goes braindead, it’s usually easy to tell. These days, clues are everywhere that Republicans are fresh out of ideas.
Blaming the messenger or saying the problem is simply a failure to communicate are classic indicators that a party lacks a pulse. Those excuses were prominent lines the other day when the senior Republican in the land, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, addressed party leaders.
McConnell warned Republicans that they were in danger of “slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one." He also said the time had come for the party to “re-examine itself.”
But he offered no new ideas.
It’s “clear our message isn’t getting out to nearly as many people as it should,” he said. “We need to work harder.”
If only it were that simple.
Selecting former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, an African-American, as national chairman should be helpful for a party with a serious diversity deficit. But finding a path out of the wilderness in the foreseeable future could take a long time.
Democrats needed a dozen years to recover from the battering Ronald Reagan gave them in 1980. Bill Clinton eventually led them back to the White House on a new, centrist message of fiscal responsibility.
Republican officials from around the country, who gathered here over the past few days to elect a new leader and ponder their party’s grim prospects, had the future very much on their minds.
They got a brutally honest, three-hour briefing from seven leading Republican pollsters. In depressing detail, they spelled out just how bad things look politically.
Alex Gage, among the gurus who spoke, said the party is worse off than it was after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, almost 35 years ago. Back then, Republicans merely had to rebound from the unpopularity of a disgraced president.
They face far more difficult problems now, including a lack of credibility with much of the public and the disappearance of millions of former Republican voters.
Using business terms, Gage pointed out that the party has lost "25 percent of our customer base." He was referring to the sharp drop in the number of Americans who consider themselves Republicans.
During the Bush era, the letter “W,” taken from the 43rd president’s middle name, was a rallying symbol for Republicans. Today, it could just as readily stand for Whig, an earlier anti-Democrat party that went out of business after breaking apart over the issue of slavery.
Conservative commentator John Fund, addressing Republican National Committee members the other day, hinted that they could follow the Whig Party into oblivion. That might happen if they don’t start attracting the millions of younger Americans who backed Barack Obama by a lopsided margin and are developing a Democratic voting habit that will be hard to break.
An even more dangerous demographic time bomb for Republicans is the widespread rejection of the party’s brand by Hispanics, who will be fully one-fifth of all voters in just 11 years.
“It’s very clear that for Republicans to win in the future, they have to got to appeal more to minorities, especially Asians and Hispanics,” said Whit Ayres, another of the pollsters who briefed party leaders. He was interviewed before Steele’s selection as chairman gave Republicans a new opportunity to reach out.
A significant segment of the Hispanic population regards Republicans as their enemy, party strategists warn. The unresolved issue of immigration reform could further enflame anti-Republican attitudes, especially if conservatives continue to be seen as a major source of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Maybe the best news, at the moment, is that few Americans are paying much attention at all to Republicans, “other than Republicans themselves,” said Jan Van Lohuizen, regarded as one of the party’s smartest thinkers.
That lack of general interest is giving Republicans a chance to repair relations with their base, a first step in the recovery process.
The recent 173-0 vote against the Obama stimulus plan by House Republicans was designed to signal conservatives that the party is returning to its tight-fisted fiscal roots.
At a breakfast yesterday with RNC members, Steele drew loud applause when he praised Republican lawmakers for laying that “huge goose egg” on the president’s desk.
He advised party officials to “rev up your machines back home” and let voters know “that Republicans are working hard to make sure the American people’s wallets, their businesses, their families are protected.”
Party strategists say Republicans still need to devise new ideas that represent solutions to everyday problems of the economy, health care, energy, education and the environment.
"You can’t just say ‘No,’" said Van Lohuizen, the Republican pollster.
For now, though, saying “No,” seems to be the plan. Facing a Democratic president with high approval ratings and a solid Democratic majority in Congress, the Republican comeback strategy is to hunker down and hold out for better days. It could be a long wait.