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For GOP, Tea Protests Offer An Alluring, but Risky, Lifeline

Newt Gingrich speaks at a "tea party" protest last week in New York.
Newt Gingrich speaks at a "tea party" protest last week in New York. (By Stephen Chernin -- Associated Press)

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By Dan Balz
Sunday, April 19, 2009

The tea bag protests that marked tax day on Wednesday represented an opportunity and a risk for the Republican Party. Opportunity because they offered a jolt of energy for a battered party after two dismal elections. Risk because they supplied at best only a partial answer to what ails the GOP. Fueling anger is not a strategy.

There was certainly a sense of deja vu to the demonstrations. Was it a faint echo of 1978 and the Proposition 13, anti-tax movement in California that helped bring Ronald Reagan to the presidency two years later? Was it the first sign of revival of the leave-us-alone, anti-government coalition that sprang up in the early 1990s and helped bring Republicans to power in the House and the Senate in 1994?

Those movements helped propel Republicans to new heights. Reagan cemented what turned out to be a long period of conservative ascendance in American politics, one whose roots were in Barry Goldwater's loss and Richard M. Nixon's victories but that did not begin to reach political maturity until the Gipper was elected.

The 1994 landslide took the party further, reshaping the Republican coalition and altering the balance of power. Though the South had been trending Republican in presidential elections, it took Newt Gingrich and his brash leadership to drive those voting habits down to House races. The 1994 election consolidated the South in GOP hands. Over time, the region became the party's geographical and ideological heart.

Once again, however, Republicans are in the wilderness. In the four years after George W. Bush won his second term as president, Republicans surrendered power in the House and the Senate and then gave up the White House. Their numbers have fallen not just in elected officials but among the rank and file; fewer people now identify themselves as members of the Grand Old Party.

The party is in decline, and the Southern-based conservatism that it projected has fallen into disfavor elsewhere. Beyond President Obama's electoral map, which turned red to blue in some surprising places, the Democrats' success in congressional and senatorial elections in 2006 and 2008 also speaks to the decline.

Four years ago, political analysts talked about Republican inroads in rural America and the exurban counties outside big cities in describing the party's strengths. Today, the Democrats' coalition looks to be the more robust.

Democratic success in the suburbs (and in some of those same exurbs), particularly outside the South, has for now trumped those earlier Republican advances. Add to that the reversal of Republican gains made among Hispanics early in Bush's presidency, and the portrait of GOP retrenchment becomes even more vivid.

The Republican Party's road back requires reassembling its conservative base, which was badly fractured during the final years of Bush's presidency. But real success will require a new effort to reach beyond that base to disaffected moderate Republicans and especially to independent voters who have moved decisively in the direction of Obama and the Democrats.

The tea party protests offer the GOP an appealing lifeline, an energized cadre of indeterminate size. They may be a one-time phenomenon or the start of something larger. The potency of the Republican prescription of tax cuts and small government has lessened with the failures of the Bush years and the scope of the economic crisis. Can it be restored? Much depends on the success or failure of Obama's economic policies.

Republican leaders are gambling that Obama is making sizable miscalculations on the public's appetite for bigger government and bigger deficits. For now the president and his policies remain popular, but it is early in the experiment. Obama must be mindful of overreaching, a problem that has affected winning parties in the past. Republican leaders have seized on the tea protests as a sign that he is doing just that.

Given the state of the GOP, any sign of life in the coalition is alluring. The question is what Republicans have learned from their recent failures. How much do they acknowledge the limits of an anti-government message? How much do they acknowledge that the country that elected Obama president and gave Democrats their majorities in Congress has changed culturally and demographically from the one that gave Republicans their victories a decade ago?

Gingrich got his party partway to power in 1994; Bush took it the rest of the way there in 2000. But as a presidential candidate, Bush had to distance himself from the Gingrich wing at times to make himself acceptable more broadly. That was an early sign of the limitations of the coalition that emerged in the 1990s.

In power under Bush, Republicans struggled to adapt their anti-government, culturally conservative philosophy to the practical demands of governing and to a changing country. The party split internally over spending and immigration, and lost the confidence of independents and moderates over Iraq and cultural issues.

Steve Schmidt, who was a top adviser to John McCain in the presidential campaign, said Friday that the party must rethink its opposition to same-sex marriage to appeal to voters, especially outside the South. His decision to speak out reflects a concern among moderates that the party has become too culturally conservative to win national elections.

For now, standing back and saying no to Obama may be enough. But opposition to the president's policies represents an incomplete message for a party seeking to regain power. Republicans still must confront larger questions of how they can appeal nationally and how they will govern if given the opportunity again.


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