In bars and on luxury cruise ships, in hotel rooms and in the halls of Congress, on TV shows and across the Internet, the catchphrase on Republican lips is, “What do we do about the party?”
So desperate are the House Republicans for inspiration and cohesion at this pivotal moment in time that as a featured speaker at the GOP retreat this week in Williamsburg, Virginia, they invited the first blind man who ever climbed Mt. Everest to address them.
No disrespect intended to Eric Weihenmayer whatsoever – his story is courageous and stands apart from the rest. But blind? Mountains? In the context of fixing today’s GOP, this only begs for bad metaphors.
The Republicans will not find the answer to what troubles them at a retreat. The party right now is a sick patient, with little prospect of getting better any time soon. The results of the November election still haunt. After losing 8 seats, the GOP kept control in the House but won fewer overall votes than the Democrats did. In Congress right now, John Boehner’s speakership has been weakened, and there is no clear, abiding agenda among the party faithful. Who exactly are the Republicans today, anyway?
Because of its lack of cohesion and direction, the party has become everybody’s favorite punching bag, with prominent Republicans – Colin Powell, Jon Huntsman, Joe Scarborough – taking some strong swings at it this past week. Their swings aim to heal, but they still hurt.
Powell was particularly pointed in his remarks on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “The country is changing demographically, and if the Republican party does not change along with that demographic, they are going to be in trouble.”
Powell went on to say that “when we see that in one more generation, the minorities of America — African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans — will be the majority of the country, you can’t go around saying, 'We don’t want to have a solid immigration policy. We are going to dismiss the 47 percent, we are going to make it hard for these minorities to vote,’ as they did in the last election.”
In the past, the party has turned to its elder statesmen – people like Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Gingrich – to help lead it back. This time, there is no one national leader to look to take it to its Promised Land.
Can anyone save the GOP? Let’s look at the possibilities:
*Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, is still dragging the anchor of his family name.
*Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, try as he might, simply can’t launch himself into the national spotlight through the limited platform he has down in Baton Rouge.
*Chris Christie, New Jersey’s outspoken governor, is occupied with his own re-election in the Garden State...
*...while Texas governor Rick Perry is waiting for the foot he shot off to heal.
*Marco Rubio remains untested. The young man is still in Triple A ball (but he is headed for the big leagues).
*And Paul Ryan is often overlooked for 2016, which in and of itself should be troubling.
The rest are either burdened with their offices or with bad consultants.
From the simple standpoint of a coherent message based on a clear set of principles, the party is nowhere. Inside its so-called “Big Tent” are neocons, theocons, Bush Republicans, Reaganites, tax cutters, budget balancers, populists, elitists, insiders, outsiders, tea party leaders, conmen and confidence men – all with their own opinion on the symptoms and the cure for what ails their party. The party is wracked with severe doubts.
Who can blame the self-loathing Republicans, then? Some of the recent comments have been helpful. Others, such as Powell’s more specific comments, seem driven by an agenda. Powell became invested in “Republican bashing” in 2008 and has apparently developed a taste for it.
The bad news is that this public flogging of the GOP will go on for awhile.
It won’t last forever, though, if the past is any indicator. It will just seem that way to House Speaker John Boehner and Company.
The party has died or committed suicide several times before. It happened to the GOP after 1932, and then again after 1964, and after 1974, and after 1992.
No doubt the party is better off than it was in December of 1974, when the Republican National Committee let most of its staff go and turned off the lights in their building, just to save on the electricity bill. And it’s certainly better off than it was in January of 1977, when only 11 percent of voters under the age of thirty called themselves Republican.
It was at that time that the RNC produced buttons that bizarrely proclaimed, “Republicans Are People Too!”
But things are pretty bad now when most people associate the party with the very rich, with unprincipled lobbyists, endless war and long-time insiderism. Too many Americans are following the nostrum of HL Mencken: “In this world of sin and sorrow, there is always something to be thankful for. I rejoice that I am not a Republican.”
The best thing Republicans can do for themselves right now – during the coronation of Obama, about to begin his second term – is to speak with many voices, to yell at itself, to point fingers, to debate and, eventually, out of the chaos will come coherence. It’s messy but it can work. It has in the past.
Rather than retreats, the GOP needs to go to spring training, shake itself free of the rust and relearn old truths that are still good truths. The party needs to remember that Ronald Reagan often said, “I don’t want to go back to the past. I want to go back to the past way of facing the future.” The winning political and governing philosophy was centered on freedom and the individual.
In an increasingly complex country and with the Democrats firmly installed as the party of “Bigness”: big government, big business, big labor, et al, it is only fitting, natural and available that the Republicans get back to a philosophy centered on individuality and personal dignity.
Craig Shirley is a historian, commentator and author of several books about Ronald Reagan.