It didn't look good. The party had lost control of the White House and both houses of Congress. In the aftermath of defeat there were many voices raised urging divergent directions. No one seemed to speak for the party as a whole. There was talk the party was headed for permanent minority status.
That sounds like the Republican Party of today, but it was written to describe the Democratic Party just four years ago as it floundered about in the aftermath of George W. Bush's successful re-election campaign. The president had political capital to spend, and it would be spent entrenching the GOP as the dominant national political party for a generation to come.
It didn't turn out that way. The Bush Administration squandered its political capital, lost control of Congress and then yielded the White House to a U.S. Senator who two years before his election was unknown to most Americans. It was a stunning turn-around in electoral fortunes grounded in Republican mis-management of the federal government and abandonment of its core principles.
Although it is too soon to tell if Democrats will do any better, there is no doubt that Republicans are engaged in the type of debate for the heart and soul of the party that accompanies an electoral defeat. Should the party return to its core values? Should the party move to the middle and become more like Democrats? Who will speak for the party: Dick Cheney or Colin Powell, Rush Limbaugh or Tom Ridge?
Powell, the former Secretary of State, along with former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge have emerged as spokesmen for the GOP's declining moderate wing. Both reignited the direction of the party debate this past weekend during appearances on national news programs. Both assailed the conservative wing of the GOP and argued for a more centrist stance.
The fact is neither has the credentials to emerge as a national party leader. In particular Powell is a flawed messenger. It is hard for the rank and file of the GOP to take seriously the views of a man who abandoned his party's nominee in the last election. Powell endorsed Obama in the closing days of the campaign, adding to the momentum than buried John McCain. McCain had always been touted as the darling of the media and the moderates, so if Powell could not support him, who would be "moderate" enough to win his backing?
Powell can be easily dismissed as an opportunist. Ridge, however, must be taken more seriously. McCain and Ridge have been good friends since both served in Congress, so Ridge campaigned hard for McCain and kept his party credentials intact. The bottom line though is that Ridge's moderate buddy lost. Were the party to nominate, as Ridge seems to suggest, someone to the left of McCain in 2012, the conservative base would surely abandon it.
Both Secretary Powell and Secretary Ridge are right about one thing: a party must build upon its base. But, before you can build upon a base you must secure the base. That has not yet happened. For the Republican Party to succeed in the future it must have an energized, effective base of conservative support — and then strive to build coalitions that can operate in harmony with that base.
This is what Democrats have done over the past four years. Democrats have employed what has at times been a schizophrenic strategy by moving to the right when necessary and to the left when necessary. For example, in many U.S. Senate and Congressional elections Democrats have tacked to the right (for them) as they did when selecting Robert P. Casey, Jr. to run for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. Then, in the presidential election they moved hard to the left as an energized activist wing propelled the liberal Barack Obama to the nomination over the more centrist Hillary Clinton.
The lesson learned? You can't win nationally without the passionate support of your party's base, and you win the more localized elections for congressional seats by being ideological enough to keep your base while reaching out and adding compatible constituencies to your coalition.
Before it can begin reaching out, the GOP must first reaffirm its core principles. Then the party must begin appealing to those alienated by the strong leftward tilt of the Democrats. And finally, in recognition of the fact the nation's demographics are changing, the GOP must take its message to non-traditional constituencies with whom its core principle will resonate. In that way Republicans can again emerge as the dominant national party.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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