It seemed utterly incomprehensible why they would want to tear down the favorite 2008 Republican candidate and an able spokeswoman for reform, one who actually still holds office.
Nor did Congressional Republicans fully appreciate the need to clean house. Young Turk Eric Cantor (R-VA) did step into the position of minority whip. But John Boehner (R-OH), hardly the model of reform and innovation, remained ensconced as minority leader. Was this the way to communicate to Republicans and the country as a whole that it would no longer be business as usual? If so, it was a strange way to show it.
None of this suggests that those inside the Beltway appreciate the predicament the GOP is in. The election returns were filled with bad news: Republican lagged in party identification (39-32%), got a fraction of the Hispanic vote (31%), and lost multiple red states (e.g., Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida). Young people are flocking to the Democratic Party. Sniping at the new president’s White House staff, circling the rickety wagons of Washington insiders, and attacking their former VP nominee are not going to ameliorate any of those problems.
There were a few isolated signs of life. Mitt Romney gave an interview which provided a cogent assessment of the economy and outlined sound fiscal policies, without engaging in a trace of partisanship. And a group of young bloggers put forth a game plan for web organizing and communication. These hints of progress and forward-looking thinking suggest that the best ideas won’t be coming from Washington, at least not from the Old Guard of leaders who led the party into ruin.
In the weeks and months ahead Republicans will need to craft a tone which does not reek of excessive partisanship. Republican strategist Todd Harris explained: “In terms of the long-term prospects for our party, the tone we take now is in many ways even more important than the tone we took during the election. The country has spoken and pretty overwhelmingly elected Barack Obama president. We can either learn from our own mistakes, in terms of the things we have done in the past that compelled a center-right nation to elect a liberal Democrat as president, or we can do what some seem to want to do, which is to point fingers, double down on failed strategies and leaders, and continue our decline.” Unfortunately, from pundits there was too little of the gentlemanly tone which Bill Kristol displayed: “We pledge our support for those of his policies we can support, our willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt in cases of uncertainty, and our constructive criticism and loyal opposition where we are compelled.” Republicans will need to develop an agenda in Congress which distinguishes them both from their own past (e.g., pork barrel spending) and the new administration, should it go down the tax-and-spend road preferred by Congressional Democrats. Will they support a bailout of the auto industry or sound the clarion call about creeping government ownership? Will they oppose a stimulus package filled with pork? In these and many other questions they will need to determine whether to oppose the Obama administration at all costs or try to carve bipartisan compromises.
As for the aspiring 2012 contenders, they would do well to follow the lead of both Palin and Romney. For Republicans who still have jobs, they should perform them well and demonstrate that some Republicans can competently govern and legislate, make bipartisan deals, and remain politically popular. For Republicans who are no longer in office, they would do well to explain, educate, and bolster rather than sneer and back-bite.
It is not completely bleak, after all. Unlike drubbings which the GOP took in 1964 or 1974, this defeat still leaves a wealth of resources at the disposal of conservatives — think tanks, the blogosphere, and talk radio, to name a few. If the remnants of the GOP care to look, they will find a plethora of interesting policy ideas and a vibrant, engaged political audience eager to revive their once-dominant party.
But if Republicans snipe, whine, bicker, and trot out the same crew of failed leaders, the public will quickly conclude that they are unworthy of attention. Many Republicans did not put their best feet forward in the days following the election. Time will tell if they can get their act together, or if this is just the start of a long and painful sojourn in the political wilderness.