By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009
One year after hitting bottom in the aftermath of President Obama's election, Republicans have taken their first concrete steps toward recovery. But they remain an embattled and divided force, facing an electorate still skeptical about their capacity to govern and embroiled in a struggle between party regulars and populist conservative forces over how to return to power.
With gubernatorial victories by Robert F. McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, Republicans today are more energized than at any time since the early months of 2005, when there was talk of a durable GOP majority in the wake of President George W. Bush's reelection. A slew of factors -- the war in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, scandals in Congress and soaring federal spending -- quickly ended that discussion and led voters to punish Republicans at the polls in 2006 and 2008.
This year, the GOP has recorded historic lows in party identification, according to a string of national surveys. And despite concerns about Obama's agenda, the public still trusts him and the Democrats over the Republicans to deal with many national problems.
The question for Republicans now is whether Tuesday's victories will prove to be aberrations or be seen as the first real signs of a party revival.
Republicans have coalesced in opposition to Obama's economic and domestic agenda, almost unanimous in their opposition to Democrats' health-care reform efforts and hammering the president relentlessly for upward spirals in spending and unemployment. The result has been a needed morale boost to the beleaguered party. "We have seen a sea change in attitude," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said. "People's spirits are higher. They see a cause worth fighting for."
Democrats have used that lock-step opposition to brand the GOP as "the party of no," and predict that the conservative grass-roots base of the GOP, fueled by radio and cable talk show hosts, will drive candidates further to the right, reducing their appeal to swing voters who once again appear up for grabs.
The tension between the party's establishment and conservative insurgents is growing, and there is concern among moderates that setting litmus tests for candidates is pushing the party too far to the right. Prominent Republicans are now split in their assessment of how to move forward.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has staked her identity with the grass roots against the establishment. "The cause goes on," she posted on her Facebook page after Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate she backed in a House special election in New York's 23rd District lost to Democrat Bill Owens on Tuesday night. That defeat in a seat long-held by Republicans, and the divisions it exposed, was the only blemish on the party's performance Tuesday.
Former House Republican leader Richard K. Armey said the party's future lies with the populist coalition of small government and libertarian conservatives, evangelicals and others who have joined tea party protests and challenged the Republican establishment to shun compromise with Obama and the Democrats. After New York 23, they are threatening to topple Republicans in other states who do not toe the conservative line.
"You don't attract people with pragmatism but with commitment to principles and purpose," Armey said. Republicans, he argued, "will continue to be a small, losing tent" unless the party establishment heeds the voices from the grass roots and fields candidates who fit that mold.
But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) cited the inherent risks to the party if it appears too narrow, rigid and intolerant. "We have to decide whether we want to be a debating society or a broad-based, center-right governing coalition," he said.
Over the next several months, The Washington Post will examine the Republicans from multiple perspectives -- the party's strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and obstacles -- as a prelude to the 2010 midterm elections.Hitting bottom
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the thrashing in 2008 finally forced Republicans to accept the reality that they were now the minority party. "I don't think reality had fully sunk in after the '06 midterm cycle," when Democrats recaptured the House and Senate, he said.
The 2006 and 2008 debacles laid bare the depth of the party's weaknesses. Republicans have lost the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections. In that span, they have averaged just 211 electoral votes and a GOP nominee never won more than 286 electoral votes (270 is the minimum necessary to win the White House) -- a sharp contrast to the era when they held a virtual lock on the Electoral College. Democrats topped 350 three times in that period.
The gap between the party's strength in the South and its weakness elsewhere has become a major problem. In last year's presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain carried the South by seven percentage points. But Obama won the Northeast by 21 points, the West by 14 points and the Midwest by nine points, according to calculations by Rhodes Cook, a political analyst. McCain got 65 percent of his electoral votes in the South.
After the Republican landslide in 1994, Republicans held a majority of House seats in the South and beyond. After the 2008 elections, Republicans still hold a majority of House seats in the South, but Democrats control about two-thirds of non-Southern seats.
Republicans also face stiff demographic obstacles as they try to come back. They ran poorly among young voters in the past two elections and have seen their strength in the suburbs erode significantly. Their biggest demographic challenge is the changing face of the nation. Last year's electorate was one-quarter minority and is becoming less white with each election.
There is little prospect of real improvement among African Americans as long as Obama is in office. Even among Latinos, Republicans have lost ground. Latinos backed Obama by better than 2 to 1, reversing gains by Bush in 2004. "The surge in young people was an anomaly, and we can get white suburban women back with the right message," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. "If we lose Latinos en masse, it'll be really hard to get them back."'Don't panic'
In the months after the shellacking Obama and the Democrats administered to the Republicans last year, Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R-Ind.) used to tell audiences that he found the most useful advice for his party from the opening pages of Douglas Adams's book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy": "Don't panic."
"That was sort of my starting point," Daniels said recently, "that the system seeks an equilibrium. . . . Shoot, it has only been four years and people were writing obituaries for the Democratic Party. That was foolish then. . . . I felt that this thing would come around."
Daniels is no Pollyanna. Last year he saw Indiana go for a Democratic presidential nominee for the first time since 1964 -- even as he was rolling up a record vote count en route to reelection. But he argued that many of those who voted for Obama a year ago did not vote for the agenda he has pursued as president, which Daniels dubbed "shock and awe statism."
"Those folks are available to Republicans," he added. "We're going to have to go out and earn them the way President Obama did, and it would take a different Republican Party to do it. But I wouldn't understate the significance of the way that the overreach, the attempt to aggrandize Washington even more, has cut those people loose."
Republicans are quick to count the ways in which, despite their problems, they are better off today than they were a year ago. First, Bush is no longer the lightning rod for voters' anger that he was in 2006 and 2008. "The country had Bush fatigue and the GOP paid the price," said Republican strategist Steve Lombardo. "But voters have moved on, and the Republican Party is benefiting from this."
Democrats now have taken ownership of several intractable issues including the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. GOP fundraising is up, along with the energy of rank-and-file Republicans. The economy, which hurt Republicans in 2008, turned into a plus for GOP gubernatorial candidates last week.
"I think the GOP is, by almost every metric, in better shape than the night Barack Obama won the election," said Pete Wehner, a Bush White House official.
Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, recalled that Ronald Reagan managed to divide and intimidate his Democratic opposition early in 1981. Changes in the composition of the parties and a decade or more of polarized politics have made that more difficult for any president today, but even with the party on the ropes, Obama has failed to drive a wedge into the Republican coalition.
"That didn't happen," Weber said. "The Republicans united themselves very quickly. They were handed a gift by the [Democrats'] handling of the stimulus package, emanating as it did out of the House of Representatives. Basically it was just too much too fast. And you see it now across -- it's not just unity in Congress. It's unity of the Republican electorate."
Many Republicans, however, acknowledge that their comeback-in-the-making is almost entirely the result of public concern about the size, scope and pace of the changes Obama has proposed, fears that government is becoming too intrusive and that the mushrooming federal budget deficit represents a threat to the long-term stability of the economy.
As one GOP strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said, "We are in better shape than in December '08, but not because of anything we did. If there is anything we could have done, we haven't done it."The road back
Last week's elections, for all they did to raise the spirits of Republicans, offer an uncertain guide to the party's future hopes. What they showed was that Republicans are more energized than Democrats, that the coalition that brought Obama to power last year may not be there for Democratic candidates next November and that independents can be won over by Republicans running smart campaigns.
But New Jersey and Virginia both voted against the party holding the White House in the past six gubernatorial elections, and therefore are unreliable harbingers of the 2010 campaign. Whatever boosts Republicans got from Tuesday, their leaders know they have much more work to do.
As one Republican strategist from the Northeast put it, "We lack a central individual or set of individuals who can inspire the country and make them want to say yes to us, not just no to the Democrats. We have serious structural problems in reaching key parts of the electorate. We are too white, too male, too old, too out of touch."
Said RNC Chairman Steele: "The Republican Party, in order to get those folks to identify as Republicans, has to exhibit the leadership that people trusted in '94 and trusted in subsequent elections and then moved away from in '06 when they stopped trusting in that leadership."
It is difficult for the party to gain the trust of voters without a recognizable set of new faces or a more positive agenda, neither of which the public sees at this point. "We're not entitled to the majority, and we're not going to get it just because the other side stumbles -- and we shouldn't want the other side to stumble," Jindal said. "We need to earn our way back to the majority, and the way you do that is by being relevant and offering solutions that will work. But they have to address the problems the American people care about."
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who as chairman of the Republican National Committee helped lead Republicans back in 1993-94, now hopes to do the same again as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He believes the GOP is poised for success next year, but worries that some of his fellow conservatives will drive voters away by insisting on ideological purity within the party.
"Every time a party loses, there are some people who say now's the time to get pure. Let's purify the party," he said on the day Republicans won Virginia and New Jersey. "That's 180 degrees backwards. In the American two-party system, both parties necessarily are coalitions. And when you lose, you need to go to special efforts to make everybody in your coalition feel welcome."
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who ran for president in 2008 and faced criticism that he was not conservative enough on fiscal issues, spoke more critically of those attempting to enforce orthodoxy. "How pure is pure? Who gets to make that decision?" he said. "Who is the great one who establishes for us the 10 Commandments [that say] you can't deviate from these positions or you're a RINO [Republican In Name Only]?"
To Democrats, the Republican Party leadership appears to have become followers. "The Republican Party tail is wagging the dog," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said. "Republican Party leaders are following the lead of [Rush] Limbaugh and the wannabe Limbaughs, the grass-roots activists such as the [tea party protesters] and all the forces in their party who want a monolithically pure, hard-line conservative party. This will prevent the Republican leaders from tacking to the middle in policy, recruiting and message."
Two weeks before Tuesday's elections, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich compared conditions today with those during the 1994 cycle. Americans, he said, are more frightened now by what they see happening in Washington, but also less open to Republicans than they were in 1993. "The aftereffect of '06 and '08 is that there's not a rush to Republicans."
What could change that? The economy, for one. Voters in Virginia and New Jersey most worried about the economy voted Republican last Tuesday. If voters are as concerned about the economy next October as they were this year, Gingrich said, "You may well have [House Republican Leader John] Boehner [as] speaker."
Gingrich also pointed to McDonnell, who played down his conservative views on social issues and focused on the economy, as a model. "When Republicans like McDonnell develop a positive message and campaign intensely among minorities, that creates an acceptable Republicanism," he said.
Republican strategists say even a successful midterm elections in 2010 will not guarantee longer-term success. They point to 1982 and 1994, when the party holding the White House suffered major losses, only to rebound two years later.
Indiana's Daniels said it is appropriate that voters put the Republicans in the penalty box and that the party must prove itself before those voters will entrust them with power again. "People are going to want to know -- first of all, that you paid the price for the things you did wrong; secondly, that you learned some lessons," he said. "Then they're going to want to look and see [and ask], 'Got something new for me?' "
When that question comes, will Republicans have the right answers?