Just how bad off is the Republican Party?

Republicans know what they're against: Barack Obama. They're still figuring out what they're for.

By Thomas Schaller

Published February 2, 2009 11:52AM (EST)

In the future, when either the story of the Republican Party's miraculous revival or its continued malaise is written, historians will return to the opening days of the Obama administration for early signs of what would follow. For within a span of just 48 hours during the final week of January, the GOP, relegated to minority status in national politics for the first time in 16 years, cast two big, revealing votes.

The first was the House Republicans' unified, 177-0 vote on Jan. 28 against the $819 billion economic stimulus package passed by the Democrats and sent to the Senate. The second came Friday, at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting, when former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele was chosen as the party's new -- and first African-American -- national chairman. Held up side by side, these two votes demonstrate that Republicans remain unified in what they stand against, but, aside from sensing they might be a little too white, are far less certain what they stand for.

What is the state of the GOP at the dawn of the Obama era? The GOP has not quite ebbed to New Deal or post-1964 Democratic landslide levels, but it has certainly reached its lowest point since the comeback congressional cycle of 1966. Obama's 53 percent national popular vote share is the highest for a Democrat since 1964, and there is no obvious set of formidable Republican presidential challengers for the 2012 election.

As Salon's Mike Madden observed from interacting with volunteers and activists on hand at the Capital Hilton in Washington for the national meeting, "If the mood and the speeches at the winter meeting are any guide, Republicans are seeking refuge from electoral defeat in an alternate reality, one where the public still loves them -- or would if they could only improve their sales pitch. And where going along with President Obama's agenda just isn't in the cards." If any further evidence is needed, consider this little gem: On the afternoon the 168 national committee members were electing Michael Steele their new chairman, fully 10 days into the Obama administration, the "national leadership" page on the RNC's Web site still depicted George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as president and vice president.

The Republicans' problems are manifold. The GOP is lacking in obvious national leadership, is not sure whether to retrench toward its conservative ideals or move toward the center, and has lost the ability to motivate its own grass-roots base, much less critical swing voters. I spoke with a variety of Republicans and conservatives, either in attendance at this week's RNC winter meeting, or watching the proceedings from afar, to get their assessment of the situation.

On the ideological question, there are elements within the party that remain convinced that Republicans are flagging because they have abandoned their conservative principles. When I asked Ross Little Jr., a veteran national committeeman from Louisiana, why he was supporting former Ohioan Ken Blackwell's candidacy over that of fellow Southerner Katon Dawson, from South Carolina, he didn't hesitate. "One of the things we have not done in the last four years is stick to our conservative principles," said Little, in explaining his support for the socially conservative former secretary of state whom Democrat Ted Strickland crushed in the 2006 Ohio gubernatorial race. "In Ken Blackwell we'd have somebody who would stand true to our principles."

Former Republican congressman Rob Simmons of Connecticut, who was part of the class of Northeastern and Midwestern incumbents who were swept out of Congress in 2006, takes the diametrically opposite view. Simmons, who was in Washington on business Friday and dropped by the Hilton to sneak a peek at the RNC proceedings, fears his party has lurched too far rightward. "I think a lot of Republicans, especially from New England and the Northeastern United States, are concerned about the narrowing focus of the party. We want to see a broader, more inclusive party," Simmons told me during the early balloting. "And the selection of the chairman may give us an idea of whether that's going to take place." Simmons was not supporting any of the five RNC candidates who qualified for the election, but hinted that he hoped members would opt for somebody other than Mike Duncan, the incumbent chairman. A Kentuckian closely allied with former President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Duncan led Steele narrowly after Friday's first ballot but slowly lost support in ensuing rounds before dropping out.

Meanwhile, the meaning of conservatism has lost clarity. Its appeal is less certain in the post-Ronald Reagan decades at the end of the previous century and start of this one.

Charles Kesler, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, told me by phone from California that some conservatives had lost touch with core principles because of a mistaken belief that they've already won the battle for the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. "Both the party and the conservative movement have bought into the notion that this is a center-right country, that the majority of the country is already conservative, that we don't have to persuade them to be conservative because they already are," said Kesler. "That may have been true when Reagan was president, but it's not a permanent truth and it doesn't seem true to me now. I don't think Bush or the party tried to really persuade people toward conservatism."

Among younger Republicans, many of whom complained that the party is out of touch with the country's emerging demography and new technologies, there is a sense that the party needs to change itself before it begins thinking about retaking power. "Republicans -- especially young Republicans -- are craving new ideas," said Rachel Hoff, 26, of the Young Republican National Federation. "We are craving pragmatic solutions to the real-world problems we face. We demand accountability, transparency and results from our leaders. We hold to the foundational principles of the conservative movement -- limited government, individual freedom and personal responsibility -- but recognize the need to appropriate those principles into modern, 21st century solutions."

"It's quite possible that this could be a scenario like 1964 or other years like that when a quick Republican resurgence is possible," said Kessler, who co-edited with the late William F. Buckley Jr. a volume of essays on conservative principles. "But I wouldn't bet on that necessarily ... I think the wilderness period will last a little bit longer because conservatives need to find their way."

Compounding the problem of ideological drift is the relative absence of clear political leadership.

Having lost the popular vote in four of the past five presidential cycles, and without control of the White House, it's unclear where the new power centers in the party reside. The Republicans' aging Senate caucus of 41 members is about to be drained further, at least in terms of seniority and leadership, and perhaps in numbers, should Republicans fail to hold onto seats to be vacated by a slew of 2010 retirements. Kay Bailey Hutchison is quitting early to run for governor of Texas. Florida's Mel Martinez, Kansas' Sam Brownback, Missouri's Kit Bond and Ohio's George Voinovich have all announced they will not seek reelection, and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter and Iowa's Charles Grassley may follow suit. (Kentucky's Jim Bunning, seen as a particularly vulnerable incumbent, has so far rebuffed strong hints from party leaders that he join them.) The GOP House population of 178 members is at its lowest level since 1993. In the states, there are just 21 Republican governors and the GOP lost ground in the state legislatures each of the past three cycles after bringing state legislative seats and control to parity in 2002 for the first time in 70 years.

Erick Erickson, an important grass-roots voice and founder of the influential blog RedState.com, believes energy and leadership will come from House Republicans. "I think initially you're going to see [energy] coming from House leaders -- Mike Pence, Eric Cantor, John Boehner, Tom Price with the Republican Study Committee. There really hasn't been a governor to step up to the plate yet, or at least one that everyone really rallies behind. And I don't think it will be in the Senate because the Republican base is more conservative than the Senate Republican conference, so people are distrustful of senators other than senators like Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn." Erickson did say, however, he thought Senate Republicans were wise to select conservative Texan John Cornyn to be in charge of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Perhaps predisposed to an alternative view, given his vantage point as Virginia's attorney general, Bob McDonnell sees the situation much differently. "I think the energy will come from the governors," said McDonnell, who this fall will try to snap the Democrats' eight-year grip on the statehouse under Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. "That's where a lot of the ideas are coming from." For now, they don't seem to share the same ideas as their fellow Republicans in Congress. Most have come out in support of the stimulus bill that the House GOP rejected, since they actually have to govern and need the money in the bill to do it.

McDonnell noted that every Republican governor who ran for reelection in 2008 won, something that can't be said for dozens of House Republicans over the past two cycles. (The Democrats picked up the Missouri statehouse, but Republican incumbent Matt Blunt opted not to seek a second term.) He mentioned how Bobby Jindal "in short order has captured the attention of Republicans across the country."

Jindal is certainly a rising star. Yet, among a field of competent chief executives with low national profiles, from Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty to Florida's Charlie Crist, nothing close to a  Reagan-like figure has emerged yet. The lone Republican governor who once offered both the star power and potentially broad-based appeal, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, is constitutionally ineligible to run for the White House.

In the near term, at least, it's hard to determine from what talent pool the Republicans will derive a group of new, national-caliber leaders.

Enter Michael Steele, the new chairman. Steele beat out a field that started with six contenders, including himself, Blackwell, sitting chairman Duncan, South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson, Michigan party chairman Saul Anuzis and former John McCain advisor Chip Saltsman, who dropped out of the race when it became clear that his "Barack the Magic Negro" CD was dispositive.

Steele has been falling upward throughout a career marked by a series of professional failures. He dropped out of the seminary, finished law school but never passed the bar, started a consulting firm that had no clients, and was rumored to have been let go from a job working for the Mills shopping mall firm because he was spending too much time engaged in party politics. When he ran as Robert Ehrlich's lieutenant governor running mate in 2002, the Ehrlich campaign put Steele on the payroll so he'd have a regular income.

But Steele has proved very capable in party and electoral politics, steadily graduating from Prince George's county chairman, to Maryland state chairman, to lieutenant governor and then leader of GOPAC, the organization founded by Newt Gingrich in the late 1980s to recruit, train and elect Republicans to national office. He is clever, telegenic and comfortable working a room. And he was the best-organized contender Friday: Team Steele had 15 whips among the 168 voting delegates working the floor. After he trailed Duncan by just six votes on the first ballot, his team built on his momentum. Steele was tied on the second ballot, later drew Blackwell's endorsement, staved off a late challenge by Dawson in the fourth and fifth rounds, and got the requisite majority on the sixth.

As the first black chairman of a party that finally seems to realize it can no longer squeeze a winning coalition from America's shrinking white male population, one might say Steele was the last candidate swept into office on Barack Obama's post-racial coattails. Now, Steele stands atop the party's national hierarchy, the GOP's black Sarah Palin.

"I think I bring a fresh game to the table," Steele told me, moments before the RNC convention was gaveled to order Friday. "I think I have a fresh perspective, coming from my days in the grass roots as a county party chair, state party chair, and running a national political organization. If we can get our grass roots engaged and excited about being involved in the party, good things will happen and then, kind of shaking up the [RNC] organization." Steele is anti-choice and socially conservative, but was also a member of the Republican Leadership Council, a group founded by Northeastern party moderates to broaden the party's demographic base. That tie was unpopular with some at the RNC's winter meeting, but suggests Steele has a pragmatic outlook that could benefit the party.

What sort of party does Steele inherit? One a lot less sure of itself than it was just four short years ago. The theme of the 2009 winter meetings was "Republican for a Reason." Like so much else in GOP world right now, it was a catchy but ambiguous phrase. For the moment, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly that reason is.


Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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