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Republicans See Long-Term Victory in Defeat on Stimulus Plan

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, shown talking to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a White House gathering late in the Bush administration, has taken on a leadership role in the out-of-power Republican Party.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, shown talking to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a White House gathering late in the Bush administration, has taken on a leadership role in the out-of-power Republican Party. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)

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"I'm always concerned when the Republican Party takes a negative position on something that should be moving forward," he said. "I believe there could be a good stimulus package, and hopefully we've created enough doubt that they'll work it out in the Senate."

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Democrats scoff at the Republicans' claim to regrouping, saying the declarations against big spending are undermined by the deficits that were run up under Bush and GOP congressional leadership. The stand against the stimulus appeared to be more rejectionist than the discovery of a new approach for moving forward, they said.

"That 'no' vote was a very tentative first move, and it remains to be seen what level of engagement and cooperation they're going to give the president," said Joel Johnson, who served as a policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. "It is much easier, when you're not sure what your strategy is, to revert to a 'no' strategy, and that's what they did."

The Republicans' bravado comes amid another sign of the depth of the party's plight: Data from Gallup show that the Democrats' edge in party identification is larger than it has been since 1983. The GOP's 178 House members, concentrated in the South, are its lowest total since 1993; it is clinging to the 41 Senate seats it needs to uphold a filibuster; it holds 21 governorships and has lost clout in state legislatures.

The solidarity against the stimulus package also glosses over a divide over comeback strategy. Many Republicans see this moment as equivalent to 1993, when the party handled a new Democratic president by resisting and capitalizing on any perceived overreach.

The party, these Republicans say, need only hold true to its small-government principles for a center-right electorate to gravitate back. That means rejecting the stimulus package and offering in its place an alternative package centered mostly on tax cuts, as House Republicans did last week.

It also means focusing the stimulus critique on relatively small slivers of the package that echo old culture wars, such as spending for contraceptives and for the National Endowment for the Arts. And it means rallying to Rush Limbaugh, who has put himself forward as a de facto party leader, penning an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal and accepting the on-air apologies of Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), who criticized the radio host and paid for it in a deluge of angry calls.

"If you get the principles right in the first place . . . the politics will take care of itself," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), a leader of the new conservative vanguard. "It comes down to basic principles -- who's better at preserving jobs, small business or the government? If you think it's small business, look to the Republicans."

Curly Haugland, a Republican National Committee member from North Dakota, said there is little need for ideas when the main task for the GOP will be fighting back Democratic ones. "We're going to have plenty to do just playing defense," he said. "These people [the Democrats] are going to be aggressively on the march."

Others argue that the past two elections represented a more fundamental turn against Reaganite assumptions that dominated for nearly three decades, and that the party has to develop an agenda that goes beyond tax-cutting to lay out a vision for government that, while smaller than what Democrats want, is active in its own right.

"They're talking too much about opposing," Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer said of the House Republicans. "They're talking too much about voting 'no' and not about how they're going to solve these issues. I'm proud the party took a stand on principles, but I also want to hear about how the Republican Party leaders intend to solve problems."

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate, praised House leaders at their recent retreat in Hot Springs, Va., for their opposition to the stimulus, but he also urged them to present a health-care plan before the Democrats did.

The need to move forward was an argument for selecting Michael S. Steele as Republican National Committee chairman. The former Maryland lieutenant governor has good relations with more moderate members of the party, hails from the suburbs in a blue state, and puts a more diverse face on a party that has not had a single African American governor or member of Congress in six years, and is also lagging badly with Hispanic voters.

In his initial statements as party leader, however, Steele has stuck to tried-and-true themes, including invoking the GOP's 1994 victory as a model and praising House leaders for their stimulus vote. "The goose egg that you laid on the president's desk was just beautiful," he told them. "You and I know that in the history of mankind and womankind, government -- federal, state or local -- has never created one job. It's destroyed a lot of them."

Steele is also facing a distraction -- a federal inquiry into allegations that his 2006 Senate campaign paid a defunct company run by his sister for services that were never performed. The campaign's finance chairman made the allegations to federal prosecutors last year as he sought leniency during plea negotiations on unrelated fraud charges.

For now, the big question facing the Republican Party is how voters will perceive its stand against the stimulus package, a judgment that is likely to depend on how the package is perceived months from now. Republicans dismiss any worry that, in their rejection, they will be seen by voters as indirectly running against an economic recovery.

Given how small their numbers are, they noted, it will be difficult for them to actually block the bill. And their own constituents, they said, are becoming increasingly critical of the package.

"This thing is a dog and it doesn't hunt," Ryan said. "Everyone thinks Washington is just going back to pork-barrel spending. You can't walk down the street in Janesville, Wisconsin, without someone trashing it."

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