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Yes, it's that bad for the GOP

To truly succeed at governing, the party needs to create a foundation that has voters believing Republicans want to govern again, not just tear down Democrats or the government.
/ Source: NBC News

There are a number of ugly debates going on inside the Republican Party right now.

There is the debate over whether or not there is even something wrong; there’s the debate over whether or not RNC chair Michael Steele should be trusted with making financial decisions for the party; there’s the debate over whether or not the party should come up with an alternative to being just a party for conservatives; and there’s the debate over whether or not all of this is just an over-reaction.

I have no stake in this other than as a junkie who enjoys a competitive political landscape.

And that is what is sad right now for junkies: things don’t even look that competitive anymore.

Barely glimmers of hope
I have yet to find a race where Republicans seem to be on the upswing just for being Republican when the Democrat in the race is an incumbent in some form. Sure, there are some glimmers of hope for the GOP but only in places where Democrats have unique problems.

Think about it: the New Jersey governor’s race is competitive because of a disastrous Democratic situation; the Virginia governor’s race is competitive because Democrats are in a nasty primary food fight and may end up nominating their most polarizing candidate; the Illinois senate race is competitive thanks to Roland “Blagojevich” Burris; the Delaware Senate race is also competitive thanks to more appointment shenanigans; and the Connecticut Senate race is competitive because Chris Dodd continues to self-destruct.

Things for the Republicans are bad, very bad. It is worse than just about any Republican wants to admit.

The party is defined too much by social issues and the brands of Bush and Cheney, rather than by what some in the party wish to define it by, mainly, limited government, personal freedom and a strong national defense.

One could argue the GOP made no progress on limiting government in their four years of total control, from 2002 to 2006. If anything, government expanded like never before.

From the Medicare prescription drug plan, to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the passage of No Child Left Behind, President Bush presided over a major expansion of the reach of government.

Individually, strong cases can be made for all of these programs. But the big picture is clear for all to see: Under Republican rule, government got bigger and more intrusive.

Which brings us to personal freedoms: From the legislating of morality (Schiavo as the prime example), to the various conservative-led state bans on gay marriage, the Republicans did very little to expand personal freedoms and if anything looked like the party trying to take freedoms away.

Sure, on certain issues, like guns, the GOP stood by their personal freedom mantras, but there are few other examples.

And then there's the issue of national defense: George Bush's Republican Party did more to hurt the GOP’s historical advantage on national security issues than any Republican president in modern times.

In fact, if President Obama is able to get some big concrete successes on the foreign policy front during his presidency, he could relegate Bush to LBJ status -- the Democratic president, who along with Jimmy Carter, created the public perception deficit for Democrats on national security. To this day, the perception dogs Democrats.

But Obama has an opportunity to make foreign affairs a party strength, just as Bill Clinton helped push the economy into the hands of the Democrats.

So the GOP has a long way to go. To the credit of some inside the party, there is a serious awareness of this problem.

Battle around 'New America'
One effort getting a ton of attention is called the National Council for a New America. I’m not sure the title makes a lot of sense, as it feels a bit like it was created by a C+ student in an undergrad business program. But it’s something.

The only thing that surprises me about the concept is that it is the first major attempt by a prominent Republican or two to actually address the issues of the party. In fact, I can't believe we're not seeing more efforts like this one. It is being launched by Eric Cantor, the Republican Whip from Virginia, and former Governors Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.

And yet, the level of ridicule some Republicans, particularly social conservatives, are throwing at them seems completely counterproductive.

Wake-up Republicans of all stripes: You are losing confidence with every part of the American political landscape, even among true believers. Anyone who doesn’t believe the party needs to change in some form needs their head examined.

The debate inside the GOP over the next few years should be about how to change the party. And if done right, this can be a healthy process.

At the moment it is unhealthy. There are too many voices like Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney automatically ruling out ideas. To attack folks right now for critiquing the party seems only to undermine the party.

The problem is the loudest folks in the party believe the answer to the GOP’s problems is to win the debate or win the argument, not to step back and examine what’s not working. No one is having a debate about whether Ronald Reagan’s mantra is still right, the idea of whether government is part of the problem or part of the solution. I happen to believe this single issue is what divides the establishment wing of the party from the grassroots conservatives whom turn to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck for their news and commentary.

Every single Republican leader should be taking some responsibility for the problems facing the GOP. It is amazing to me that few key leaders of the past 10 years are accepting any blame. Instead, most point to where they believe they were right, but weren’t listened to.

The excuses sound awfully familiar, like those we’ve been hearing from the financial sectors on the current economic crisis. No one is stepping up and accepting any responsibility. The public only sees a bunch of cowards afraid to take responsibility.

The Specter factor
It’s easy to write off the Arlen Specter party switch as nothing more than a craven, power-hungry senator desperate to survive. But just because Specter’s desperate doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory for the Pennsylvania GOP.

Just look at all of the Republican Congressional Districts in that state following the 2002 election versus now. The GOP controlled the redistricting process in 2001, which led to a massive advantage – 12 to 7 – in the 19-member Congressional delegation. Just six years later, that advantage flipped around, still 12 to 7, but in favor of Democrats. And Democrats managed this with a Republican map.

This is hugely significant. Most of the Democratic gains were made in the Philadelphia suburbs where Republicans stopped identifying with their party.

Arlen Specter left the GOP because it is a lot easier to win in Pennsylvania as a Democrat than as a Republican. It is that simple. For folks on the right to brush this off as some sort of “good purge” is extremely naïve. The suburban issue confronting the Republican Party has been ongoing for 20 years.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush carried the ultimate suburban state of New Jersey. Now, not only is New Jersey not a Republican state, it’s barely competitive. In fact, it’s possible that despite incredibly poor job ratings the current Democratic governor, Jon Corzine might actually win re-election. The fact that he’s even competitive says more about the weakness of the Republican brand in New Jersey than it does about Corzine or the Democrats.

And this same suburban issue appears all over the map, not just in the northeast: see the I-4 corridor in Florida, the Denver area and its suburbs, Northern Virginia outside of Washington, D.C., and so on.

All this suburban flight from the Republican Party mirrors another key demographic flight from the party: college educated Americans. Education level is becoming an easier and easier predictor of political allegiance. This is not something Republicans should feel good about. Why? Because the number of voters who have some college education is growing; and at the same time, Democratic performance among these voters is growing. And the suburbs have a good chunk of college-educated residents.

And I haven’t even delved into the problems Republicans have appealing to minorities and younger voters.

Time for a re-branding
Bottom line: Demographic trends from the past 10 years, and the erosion of Republican support on a number of levels, indicates the GOP desperately needs a re-branding campaign.

They also need to refine their principles. Be conservative, but become common sense conservatives. Become the so-called ‘competent’ managers of government; become a party of solutions.

Jeb Bush seemed to have it right when he indicated his own party didn’t have anything to offer up against the Democrats’ “something.” In this case, that something is a bunch proposals conservatives may label as big government ideas, but they are ideas.

Republicans aren’t offering ideas, just an argument and a philosophy, but not concrete alternatives which seem innovative or different.

Ironically, Mitt Romney did seem to come up with innovative ideas regarding health care in Massachusetts, yet Romney now runs from those very ideas.

The party needs hundreds of efforts like the one Cantor is offering, not fewer. The party needs to learn how to talk to voters without sounding anti-intellectual. The party needs its governors to start experimenting again: to come up with conservative solutions, to figure out public-private partnerships that work. They need to steal a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook about looking for the right answer. President Obama is running circles around the Republicans on this front, and he has the bully pulpit, so it can seem easy for him to do.

It is ugly right now. Republicans shouldn’t sit back and wait for the pendulum to swing. Democrats tried that and it didn’t work. Just ask Bill Clinton. He didn’t make the changes he wanted to. And he didn’t have an entire party buying into him the way Democrats are now buying into Obama.

To truly succeed at governing, the party needs to create a foundation that has voters believing Republicans want to govern again, not just tear down Democrats or the government.

It is time for Republicans to provide their own vision.