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For GOP, a Case of Misshapen Identity

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

Who am I? Why am I? Where am I going?

So very, very much for the Republican to ponder in this Winter of the Democrats' Contentment. So many questions. Even the reliable color scheme has gone blurry. Isn't that big-shot GOP strategist Alex Castellanos swirling Republican red with Democrat blue, and coming up with a Washington consulting shop called -- heavens! -- "Purple?" Why, yes.

"Sit tight," the new firm's Web site says. "We are still mixing the colors."

What's next? Republican tie-dye?

So many questions.

"We're in this rebuilding time," Monica Notzon, a Washington-based Republican fundraiser, helpfully explained this month. "Trying to figure out who we are."

It is into this new world order, this Washington version of an existential whorl, that a steadfastly loyal group of Republicans descend this week, skidding into an iced-over landscape and holing up at the Capital Hilton beginning yesterday for a four-day winter meeting of the Republican National Committee. (Not to be missed on the restorative agenda: a "Reboot the RNC" open house.) They've themed the whole get-together "Republican for a Reason," and left it at that.

"Republican for a reason?" says Stephen Scheffler, a committeeman from Iowa, pausing before a banner carrying the slogan. "I don't know what that means."

This is not an occasion for high-fives. The committee is getting together to choose a new chairman, settling an unusually intense competition that includes former Maryland lieutenant governor and current omnipresent talking head Michael Steele. It will also consider whether to issue a call to put the kibosh on President Obama's stimulus plan and any future industry bailouts. A few young women in blue T-shirts hand out stickers promoting a candidate for chairman, Saul Anuzis, of Michigan. None of the other candidates seem to bother.

The members linger over soup in the hotel restaurant and chat quietly in the hallway. Ron Kaufman -- a committeeman who was tight with Daddy Bush -- tries to sell a couple of fellow members on the virtues of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Eventually the group files behind closed doors to commiserate in secret. Beginning today it will open things up for publicly consumable speechifying.

These committeemen and committeewomen -- including a bunch of new, mostly conservative members -- land in a capital that used to be theirs. Oh, things were sweeeet when their krewe got together back in 2005, when they had both houses of Congress and the White House, and their newly minted chairman, Ken Mehlman, was making dynasty rumblings, declaring a crusade for "a durable majority." This time, Washington is a place where Democrats seem to have the mojo and where just a few days ago the yuksters at the bars up in Adams Morgan were smashing elephant piƱatas and spearing elephant dartboards.

All the Obama love in the air isn't helping their moods, either. Jim Bopp, a committeeman from the Great State of Indiana, grumbled before coming into town that "there's kind of a 'Kumbaya' feeling in the country."

So, what's a Republican to do? Definitely some "soul-searching," says John Czwartacki, who was a top aide to then-Sen. Trent Lott in better times for Republicans.

"I don't think the Republican Party needs to take a Paxil," Czwartacki says. "But it needs quiet time to reevaluate things."

Ah, but there's so much noise. Everyone wants to tell Republicans what they did wrong, especially other Republicans. Getting their new identity straight comes with self-flagellation.

The party's "deeds did not match its words. Did not rein in spending. Did not rein in earmarks," Bopp says.

"In many ways we got what we deserved," Kaufman says.

"Wimpy," Scheffler calls Republicans in Congress.

On the airwaves and in print, the Republicans keep blasting away, gnawing on each other's tender wounds. There's former congressman Tom Davis, once the chairman of the Republican Congressional Committee, declaring in op-eds that "our party is broken" and tsk-tsking the GOP for pushing away "soccer moms" with its social policies and "NASCAR dads" with its ethical failings. And there's Rush Limbaugh giving fellow Republicans what for, and getting some grief in return.

"The Republican Party is making a big, big -- the conservative movement, too -- making a big, big mistake in planning for the future," he told Fox's Sean Hannity. "You hear things like 'Well, the Republican Party needs to identify the middle class, the Wal-Mart voters, and come up with policies for them. And then we've got to come up with policies for the Hispanics because they hate us due to illegal immigration.' "

And the ultimate insult from Limbaugh: that's the way Democrats do things.

But what do Republicans do?

Who are they?

"That all needs to be sorted out," Czwartacki says. "Are we the party of fiscal responsibility? Are we the party of small government? Are we the party of smarter small government? Are we the party of property rights?

"We need to get reacquainted with who we are."

It's all so darn confusing, this identity stuff.

Even the Purple guys want to parse as they unveil their new thing. They're all about providing bipartisan advice to associations and corporations, managing partner Bruce Haynes says. But it's more complicated than that for him, Castellanos and their Democratic partners.

"Alex and I are still going to be wearing our Republican hats," Haynes explains. "It's in our DNA. We're just intertwining our DNA with theirs for this specific purpose."

Okay.

In the hallway at the RNC meeting, when someone asks Kaufman who he is, he doesn't say "Republican committeeman," "savvy Washington insider" or even "Ayn Rand booster." He opts instead for an extreme identity makeover.

He says, "Brad Pitt."

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