NEW YORK, Sept. 3 -- Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a man known for frank talk, offered a blunt description of the state of his party, which broke camp here Friday after nominating President Bush for a second term. "The Republican Party," he said, "has come loose of its moorings."
Hagel was not referring to Bush's leadership or his prospects for reelection but instead to the impact of a presidency that has seen the party embrace the largest deficits in U.S. history and a foreign policy that has put the United States at odds with many of its closest allies and heightened suspicion of institutions such as the United Nations.
Hagel expects recrimination and worse if Bush loses to John F. Kerry, but he predicts that, win or lose, the GOP faces a period of introspection and debate over its future. "I think you've got a party that is in a state of uncertainty," he said.
While many Republicans attending the convention dismissed Hagel's prediction as unduly pessimistic, there is likely to be a series of intraparty debates, starting after the election, over the size and role of government, the U.S. role in the world, and how Republicans can expand their coalition.
Some Republicans believe that, if Bush is reelected, a second term will put a fresh face on the party and resolve some festering disputes. "I just don't feel that . . . a lot of these disputes between deficit hawks and supply-siders or between social and economic conservatives are going to create nearly the level of fissures or the number of fissures that they might have in the past," said Ralph Reed, former chairman of the Georgia GOP. "I think it's very hard to go back as a party once you've had a transformational figure."
Yet Reed's conclusion is the opposite of the argument Republican speakers advanced throughout their convention, as they portrayed Kerry as a Democrat who would take the country back to a pre-Clinton liberal mind-set. Whether that is true or not, Democrats learned after the Clinton presidency and Republicans learned after eight years of Ronald Reagan that seemingly settled arguments suddenly reappear and that parties regularly face internal warfare over their direction.
The future of the GOP will be shaped by party intellectuals, think-tank fellows and constituencies seeking to alter the balance of power within the party, as well as by battles in Congress over spending and taxes. But added to that is the battle for the party's 2008 presidential nomination. With Vice President Cheney already ruling out a run for the presidency, there is no heir apparent.
Throughout the convention week, prospective candidates diligently made the rounds of delegation caucuses, with the Iowa and New Hampshire delegations particular favorites, and several of the party's brightest stars who might be candidates -- particularly Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- lit up Madison Square Garden with their speeches.
Change will also come from outside forces, most notably two powerful demographic trends that will have an impact on both parties -- the coming retirement of the baby-boom generation and the rapid growth of the Latino population.
The boomers' retirement will strain the government's ability to fund Social Security and Medicare and will heighten the debate within the party about the federal deficit. "The day of reckoning is getting closer," said John J. Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in California.
The growth of the Latino population threatens to reshape the presidential electoral map in the Democrats' favor unless Bush and others in the GOP begin to increase their share of the vote in a constituency that remains strongly Democratic. That task is complicated by the traditional Republican instinct -- heightened in this security-conscious era -- to be tough on immigration. Still, Republicans say Hispanics should be attracted to the party's conservative values.
While Republicans have rallied around Bush's leadership, a defeat in November will probably trigger a major reassessment of where the party went wrong. On both fiscal policy and foreign policy, Bush has defied the instincts of a significant segment of the party. Deficit hawks have been in retreat, as have those who favor realism, not moralism, in foreign policy.
"The interventionists in the party will be in trouble," Pitney said. "If Bush goes down, so will Wilsonian rhetoric. A lot of Republican thinkers are going to be dusting off their Henry Kissinger books."
Hagel, who has differed with Bush on Iraq and foreign policy, sounded ready to start the debate. "The Republican Party after . . . World War II was an internationalist party," he said. "We reached out. . . . We developed consensus in the world. That was done through many avenues, associations, coalitions and common interests."