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A winter of GOP discontent

Even though it's only January in an off-year and President Bush's State of the Union is barely a day old, the GOP's nervousness and depression is palpable. The gloom is somewhat widespread right now, and if Republicans aren't careful, 2008 could turn into a disastrous self-fulfilling prophesy for them.  The National Journal' s Chuck Todd reports.
/ Source: National Journal

Even though it's only January in an off-year and President Bush's State of the Union address is barely a day old, the GOP's nervousness and depression is palpable. The gloom is somewhat widespread right now, and if Republicans aren't careful, 2008 could turn into a disastrous self-fulfilling prophesy for them.

Tuesday night's speech was the start of a critical time for the Republican Party, because if Bush can't reverse his political death spiral, next year is going to make last year seem like a fond memory.

Some Republicans would prefer that Bush just go away -- that somehow if he is dismissed as a lame duck, voters won't hold other members of the GOP accountable for his problems.

But that's just not the case. The rebound of the GOP brand has to start with the White House, specifically Bush, if the party has any hopes of winning something in 2008. Nevertheless, all sides are denying this fix at the moment.

One camp truly believes Bush will not be a factor. Another understands that the "Bush brand" is synonymous with the GOP brand but has no faith that the White House does.

Still another group believes the party's problems rest solely with Iraq and therefore are not fixable in the political realm. Finally, there's the White House, which appears to see that there's a problem but can't seem to stumble onto a solution.

At a minimum, selecting Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., as Republican National Committee chairman indicates that the White House knows the party needs better spokesmen. While Martinez may seem like an odd choice politically (read: immigration), he puts a unique face from a crucial state in charge of shepherding the Republican Party brand. But at best, Martinez is a Band-Aid. He does nothing for Republicans on what's really dragging them down: Iraq.

A number of Republicans are quietly shaking their heads at the White House's inability to make any domestic political progress on Iraq. Forget policy for a minute; the political ramifications of the president's decision to ignore the Iraq Study Group may be viewed as the single biggest political mistake of the '08 cycle.

The biggest complaint I hear from Republicans who may find themselves in competitive '08 races is that Democrats don't own a piece of the Iraq problem. And that was the beauty (politically speaking) of the ISG. There were a few things that didn't thrill some Democrats, but they were generally willing to sign on to most of the bipartisan group's findings. Had Bush bought in, the political pressure would have been on the Democrats to buy in. And the moment Iraq becomes an American problem rather than a Republican problem, the GOP would have a more level playing field.

With the White House wholly rejecting the "get the GOP out of Iraq" card, the president managed to do something many thought was nearly impossible: He strengthened the GOP's ties to the war.

So what does this mean for 2008? Potential disaster. There are five people who are probably sweating more bullets about the GOP's image problem than anyone else: The party's three presidential front-runners (John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney), National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign of Nevada and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma.

These five are trying to find the silver lining right now for the GOP in the upcoming election cycle. They are the ones who are trying to make potential candidates, activists and donors believe that 2008 can be a good Republican year, but they are probably having a hard time selling that message right now thanks to Bush and Iraq. To succeed, they need a White House that wants to help out politically. Some in GOP circles worry that the White House is more worried about its Iraq legacy than its political legacy -- but the two are intertwined.

Someone has to convince Bush that his lone job between now and Labor Day of this year is to do whatever it takes to get the Democrats to share responsibility on the Iraq issue.

GOP consultant Mike Murphy had the intriguing notion of having Bush invite the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee chairs from both chambers to serve on a new war Cabinet. Murphy was desperately trying to send the distress signal that without bipartisan ownership of Iraq, 2008 is likely to be a political disaster.

Murphy's right that the White House must realize that an '08 shellacking will not look good in the history books. More importantly, Bush won't have the chance to ever be proved right about the Middle East without the Democrats' cooperation. So his legacy is doomed on both counts unless there's some pivot in policy direction on Iraq.

The Republican Party's immediate future rests on the shoulders of its lame-duck leader, because for better or for worse, he's the face of the party. If he doesn't hit bottom quickly and then start to improve his own standing, the GOP is going to find itself in a black hole in terms of recruitment.

Already, there are whispers that the GOP presidential field is thin because too many potentially strong candidates are getting spooked by the environment. If 2008 looked more promising, wouldn't Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi or Jeb Bush of Florida be in? Wouldn't intriguing dark horses like South Dakota Sen. John Thune or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty be rolling the dice?

Since the year isn't looking good now, the attitude could seep down into the Senate and House battlegrounds come spring and summer when recruiting efforts kick into high gear.

In 1995, Democrats were experiencing a similar depression. Eventually, Bill Clinton turned things around in time to get himself re-elected, but not in time to affect candidate recruiting.

For Bush and the Republicans, there's still time, but the window is closing.