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Is The GOP Hopeless?

David Frum, pulling no punches:

Have you heard about the marsh mouse? The little swamp critter that got $30 million of stimulus bill spending thanks to Nancy Pelosi? Of course you have! The mouse was highlighted on Drudge and chortled over by Glenn Beck. One Republican congressman actually dandled a toy mouse in debate.

The story's not false exactly. The stimulus money really does contain money for wetlands restoration. One of the wetlands that might benefit really is located on San Francisco Bay. And the marsh mouse really does live there.

... The problem with the story is not that it was false. The problem with the story is that it was stupid.

The US economy has plunged into severe recession ... President Obama and the Democrats have responded by steering the US radically to the left ...And facing all this - we're talking about mice?

Could we possibly act more inadequate to the challenge? More futile? More brain dead?

We in fact have a constructive solution to offer, one that would deliver more jobs faster: the payroll tax holiday, an idea endorsed by almost every reputable right-of-center economist. But that's not the solution being offered by Republicans in Congress. They are offering a clapped-out package of 1980s-vintage solutions, including capital gains tax cuts. Capital gains! Who has any capital gains to be taxed in the first place?

I spent a lot of time during the election just past issuing complaints roughly like this one about the McCain campaign, and the GOP more generally. I've issued fewer over the last few weeks - partially out of exhaustion with the topic, and partially out of a sense that there's nobody to issue them to. At least during the 2008 election the party had a titular leader, from whose campaign a constructive new direction for conservatism might plausibly originate - even if the campaign in question seemed to have little interest in pursuing any such new direction. Whereas today's Republican Party has no leaders at all, if you define leaders as politicians with the credibility and power to chart a new course for the party, as opposed to having it charted for them by the GOP's most vocal constituents and most ideological backbenchers. John McCain was mistrusted by the base, but he at least had run, and won, a national primary campaign, and thus could claim some sort of a mandate to lead the party. Whereas the GOP's leaders in Washington, your Mitch McConnells and John Boehners, owe their power entirely to backroom politics: Nobody loves them, nobody trusts them, and as a result they're in no position to execute the kind of pivots that the party needs to make. One can reasonably expect them to do better than they've done to date when it comes to articulating an actual alternative to Obamanomics - i.e. more Larry Lindsey, less Jim DeMint - but one can't expect them to do much better. They simply don't have enough room to maneuver.

As I see it, there are a few ways to imagine the GOP acquiring the kind of innovative leadership it desperately needs. In one model, somebody who's already in the party's D.C. leadership builds up enough credibility with the conservative base - by successfully derailing some key Obama initiatives, for instance - to promote a new policy agenda without being dismissed as a sellout. The Grand New Party-reading Eric Cantor would be an obvious candidate for this role, and so might Michael Steele, if the GOP has a good midterm election cycle. Both men seem like forward-thinking politicians who are trapped, at the moment, by the need to say the things (and only those things) that the party's base wants to hear; both might become something more impressive if they get some victories under their belts.

But that's a big if - which is why the more likely road to revival for the GOP probably starts outside Washington, with politicians who can afford to be experimental without constantly worrying about what Rush Limbaugh would say about them. This is one of the ways reform happened in the Democratic Party of the '70s and '80s: You had a collection of distinctive and innovative political figures - your "Atari Democrats," your neoliberals, your "New Democrats" - who were testing out new ways of being liberal in statewide races long before their ideas were embraced by the party nationally. (Some of them still haven't been, of course, as Mickey Kaus will be happy to inform you.) What the Republican Party needs, above all, is a generation of politicians who can fill the "center-right" space currently occupied by time-servers like Arlen Specter and Susan Collins with a politics that's oriented around policy, rather than process. It needs a reform caucus that's actually interested in reform (as opposed to deal-cutting), and that's populated with politicians who have tried something new in difficult political terrains, and proven that it might work.

If such a caucus doesn't emerge in Washington, though, then the party has to hope it emerges in the statehouses - and that one such statehouse occupant has what it takes to win the party's nomination, the Presidency, and singlehandedly turn the GOP away from it's self-defeating, self-destructive habits along the way. This is both the easiest way for the party to acquire the leadership it needs, and the hardest: It's the easiest because it only requires the emergence of one great politician, rather than the slow cultivation of a generation of them; and it's the hardest because it depends on the skills and vision of a single reform-minded leader, rather than a pooled efforts of like-minded cohort. Some of the failures of the Bush Administration, it's worth noting, reflect precisely the latter set of dangers: You had a President trying, fitfully but with some sincerity, to create a new kind of conservatism (compassionate, big-government, whatever) without the kind of institutional and intellectual support that his project required. And it's easy to imagine the next Republican President - whether it's Jindal in 2016 or whomever - running into the same sort of problems, and running aground on them as well.
 
But those risks would be preferable to what seems to me like the worst-case scenario for a Republican revival, in which the party regains power without having developed any new leadership at all - as the beneficiary of a disastrous "Obama economy," but without any ideas for how to handle the situation save the same "clapped-out package of 1980s-vintage solutions," as Frum puts it, that too many Republicans are content to offer now. Which is why my watchword for now is patience: The only way conservatism is really going to come back is gradually, and the best thing for right-of-center thinkers to do is to call out bad ideas and promote good ones, and wait for politicians with the wit and courage to give some of the best ideas that bubble up a trying-out. This may not happen at all: The Republican Party could remain dysfunctional for years. But I'm trying not to get too discouraged if it doesn't happen in the first few months of Barack Obama's Washington.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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