Rudderless in post-Gipper America


Good grief, the Republicans are doing it yet again. Even though they were thrashed in the 2008 election, as well as in the 2006 congressional elections, they still apparently persist in believing that they can resurrect their political fortunes by convincing everyone that it's 1981 and that our clocks are still set on Gipper Standard Time.

Such was the spectacle yesterday, as the six male candidates for the national Republican party chairmanship met in Washington, ostensibly to debate each other, and wound up invoking RonaldReagan 10 times in the first 48 minutes. Somebody please get these guys a compass, for their own sake, and point it toward the future.

This race for the GOP chairmanship, which will culminate three weeks hence in an election engineered by the 168 voting members of the Republican National Committee, provides us with a window into the party's current identity crisis. It is leaderless and rudderless; judging by what I heard yesterday, it clearly wants to reaffirm its conservative values - but it has no idea how to reconnect with the independent swing voters who decisively rejected the GOP in 2006 and 2008.

Whoever wins this job will become the face of the national party, at least for the next couple years. But all six candidates have significant flaws.

The current chairman, Mike Duncan, who's running to keep his job, has already presided over devastating losses, and he's a snooze on TV. Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, is African-American (unlike roughly 98 percent of the party), and he shows up a lot on Fox News, but the conservatives who dominate the national GOP hierarchy don't like the fact that he was recently the leader of a moderate Republican group that stressed tolerance and outreach. Another contender, Michigan party chairman Saul Anuzis, has some outside-the-box assets (he's a Teamster, he has a goatee, he rides a motorcycle, he can talk to working-class voters), but GOP presidential candidates have been losing Michigan ever since 1992.

There are three more. Ken Blackwell, the longtime African-American pol from Ohio, has a lot of Christian conservative support, but the GOP has had tough times in Ohio lately, as evidenced by Blackwell's disastrous gubernatorial bid in 2006, when he won only 37 percent of the vote. Katon Dawson, the South Carolina chairman, might be a nice choice, if not for the fact that the GOP already is stuck with its image (and growing reality) as the southern white party.

And lastly, we have Chip Saltsman of Tennessee (same regional problem as Dawson), who ran Mike Huckabee's presidential bid, and who most recently distributed the satire song "Barack the Magic Negro" to party members as a Christmas gift - a gesture which will hardly endear him to the minority voters who have been emigrating from the GOP in droves these last few election cycles. (Newt Gingrich has denounced Saltsman's behavior as "so inappropriate that it should disqualify any Republican National Committee candidate who would use it.")

Among these candidates, there seems to be a consensus that George W. Bush screwed up big time. They dislike his fiscal track record - the runaway federal spending, the record deficits - and, when prompted, they said so. Anuzis said, "Big-government conservatism is an oxymoron, and pushing big spending and deficits really damaged the (party) brand." But none of the candidates addressed the key issue, which is whether the GOP can recoup by preaching small-government a time when every poll indicates strong support for more government activism, and a sharp spike since 2004 in voter identification with the Democratic party.

For starters, Republicans need a leader who will practice inclusiveness, and successfully woo minorities and swing voters to the GOP. That's how you win elections. The problem, however, is that the party's conservative base - a major force among the 168 Republican National Committee members - cares more about ideological purity. At yesterday's debate, which was sponsored by the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, the six candidates were asked how many guns they own. The audience murmured with satisfaction when they heard the response: four of the candidates own a combined 22 guns, and a fifth candidate said that he owned too many to count.

Every once in awhile, a candidate said something that was designed to pull Republicans out of their (shrinking) comfort zone. Steele suggested that it's important to reach out more effectively: "We cannot look at folks and say, 'Well, you do not (meet) my litmus test of choices, and therefore I don't want any part of you.' I think at this stage, for this party, everyone who can help us should be brought into the room." Hearing that, Dawson nodded in agreement: "We have practiced the politics of subtraction, not addition...When we become the party of addition, we start winning elections."

Some candidates even acknowledged that the party will be toast for years to come unless they can somehow connect to minorities and young people. That should be obvious; according to the 2008 exit polls (and thanks to the Bush baggage), 45 percent of under-age-30 voters now define themselves as Democrats, while just 26 percent are Republican. And the latest nonpartisan Pew poll reports that the current gap among young voters is even bigger: 61 percent identify themselves as Democratic, only 32 percent as Republican (by contrast, the gap in 2004 was only seven percent). Meanwhile, in terms of the actual '08 voting, only 31 percent of Hispanics and four percent of blacks chose John McCain.

Blackwell spoke yesterday about the importance of "growing a new electorate," and others echoed him. But GOP leaders say this stuff all time; a former party chairman, Bush ally Ken Mehlman, launched a major outreach effort to minorities, traveling extensively to meet with them, and even apologizing for the GOP's various race-coded campaign tactics - all to no avail.

Anuzis lamented yesterday that "we haven't done a very good job of articulating our values," and Saltsman lamented that "we've done a very poor job of communicating who we are and what we believe." But Ken Mehlman was a fine communicator; the real problem was that minorities - and, over the past four years, young people - have wanted no part of what the GOP was selling. (Duncan had a grand idea for how to connect with the kids. Watch out, Democrats, this is real cutting-edge stuff. Here's Duncan: "We have to do it in the Facebook, with the Twittering, the different technology that young people are using today.")

Ultimately, the candidates yesterday articulated their fallback position: somehow the Obama team will screw up, and therein lies the opportunity for a comeback. Dawson talked about how the Democrats will be "overreaching and overpromising...They'll give us the gift of an overreaching, overpowering government that will limit our freedom."

That would certainly allow the GOP to talk about what it is against. But, in an ethnically and racially diverse nation, what does the party stand for? And how will it sell those affirmative principles to an increasingly wary electorate? It will take more than the election of a GOP chairman to sort out that dilemma.