Republicans Confront Formidable Task Ahead

Supporters of Sen. John McCain wait to hear from the Republican presidential candidate in Phoenix on election night.
Supporters of Sen. John McCain wait to hear from the Republican presidential candidate in Phoenix on election night. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

For the first time in 16 years, Republicans will wake up this morning shut out on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and party leaders are already girding for the recriminations.

"The next couple of months will be a very ugly period in the Republican Party," said Fergus Cullen, 36, chairman of the New Hampshire GOP. "There will be finger-pointing and blame."

Theories of what went wrong this year are varied and often contradictory. Some say the party embraced conservatism too tightly, while others say the party has not been conservative enough. One popular argument among GOP partisans is that the party strayed from its principles of limited government; another is that it has lost its appeal to suburban voters over social issues and the environment. Many say Republicans could not escape the shadow of Iraq and George W. Bush, the least popular GOP chief executive since Richard M. Nixon.

At least one thing seemed clear after the electoral drubbing the GOP suffered yesterday: Republicans will soon find themselves in the throes of an intense debate over the direction of a party that has no obvious leader and no clear path back to power.

"It's amazing how a butt-kicking can help clear people's heads," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who received serious consideration to be McCain's running mate. "The Republican idea factory has gotten stale. We are still running on the policy ideas of 20 or 30 years ago. . . . The defeat and the setback saddens me, but it's now an opportunity to dust ourselves off."

Exit polls suggested a considerable rebuilding task for the GOP: Not since 1980 has a lower percentage of the electorate described itself as Republican. Ominously for the party, McCain was crushed among young voters and Hispanics, the fast-growing minority population once seen as potential gold for Republicans.

Utah's Republican governor, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., predicted a "broad discussion of the future of the party" with virtually every big issue on the table. "Was there anything that went right for us over the last several years?" he asked, saying that the party's international agenda has been "flawed" and U.S. prestige abroad "squandered, in terms of where you see our level of respect overseas."

"Domestically we have been totally tone-deaf in terms of recognizing the environment and where most Americans are in terms of having a healthy environment," said Huntsman, a popular governor who easily won reelection. "We have been missing in action in terms of any semblance of fiscal responsibility, [and] we have put forward nothing meaningful in terms of health-care reform that has any traction."

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), another individual often mentioned as a possible party leader, said the GOP must do a better job talking about the issues that most concern middle-income Americans, including health care and economic security. "There is a challenge for us to reconnect to people, to show that our policies are what the middle class really cares about," he said.

Other prominent party figures said the GOP should not overreact to the election results, asserting that Democrat Barack Obama moved toward the center during the general election campaign and co-opted traditionally Republican themes such as lower taxes. "Most everything we believe is based on two principles: freedom and security," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "Those are our two bedrock principles, and I don't think there's any issue with the principles, because America is clearly a center-right country."

For that reason, many prominent Republicans doubt that the party will rethink its stances on some key issues, such as opposing abortion and promoting a hawkish foreign policy. Indeed, there will be a pull from some in the party for a return to basics, such as trying to rein in earmarks and government spending.

Diana Bannister, a GOP consultant whose clients have included the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups, said the party did not do enough to differentiate itself from the Democrats. "Why vote for a Republican when you get the same programs you would get when you voted for a Democrat? Prescription drug plan, No Child Left Behind -- these are not conservative principles," she said. "My family is asking what is going on when they see Republicans bailing out Wall Street."

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