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The Republican Resurgence

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Dan Balz
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, November 9, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Dan Balz was online Monday, Nov. 9 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss what has happened to the Republican party since the debacle of 2008, why Republicans seem more optimistic today than they were 9 months ago, and which obstacles they must overcome to get back in power.

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Read his article Republicans seek a path to revival.

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Dan Balz: Welcome to everyone on a beautiful day in Washington. We kicked off our series examining the state of the Republican Party on Sunday and we'll be following up with many more pieces in the next few months. We hope to hear from as many of you as possible -- your views of the GOP, its strengths or weaknesses as you see them; who you think is best equipped to be a leader of the party as we head toward the 2010 and 2012 elections. Today we'll try to answer as many of your questions as possible.

Dan Balz

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Silver Spring, Md.: I wonder if you could state the evidence for your premise of a "Republican resurgence". I see a Virginia that did what it's done since 1977 (vote against the party in the White House) in the presence of an epically bad Democratic candidate... a governor in New Jersey who was wildly unpopular since even before the "2008 debacle" (your baseline)... and - oh yes - a district in NY that went -Democratic- for the first time since the White House has featured a bath tub. With two unsurprising (from the vantage point of a year ago) gubernatorial results and one historical flip toward the Dems in NY, isn't it as valid to call last Tuesday a further shift leftward?

Dan Balz: I don't think I used the word "resurgence" in the piece that ran on Sunday. I do think it's fair to say they have taken some concrete steps toward the beginning of a revival. Your points about the history of gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey are well taken. The party in the White House has lost both of those races for six straight elections. However, the size of Bob McDonnell's victory margin in Virginia was impressive and in both states the swing in just 12 months was equally notable.

Does that mean the Republicans are back? Hardly. They have a lot of underlying problems before it can be said there is any kind of resurgence. But the way back has to start with winning elections. Talk to any smart Republican leader and ask them how do you put the party back together and their answer is consistently the same: start winning. That is only a first step, of course.

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Stowe, Vt.: Mr. Balz:

It seems to me that most post-election coverage, including your assessment of the GOP, too readily accepted the spin of emphasizing the gubernatorial victories by Robert F. McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, while minimizing the victory of Bill Owens in the House election in New York's 23rd District.

The media narrative is that the GOP is now on the rise going into 2010. I'm not sure why governors' races would serve as better indicators than legislative ones.

Isn't it more significant to gain a national seat -- and another vote in the U.S. House -- than to win state races?

Dan Balz: I don't minimize what happened in New York. If you read the late versions of my analysis on Tuesday's elections and the Sunday story, both use New York 23 as evidence of the problem the Republican face as they try to take advantage of the grassroots anger that has built up this year. I think Republicans want to talk only about Virginia and New Jersey and Democrats want to talk only about New York 23. The truth is all three are imperfect predictors of events next year, but they do tell us something about the electorates in those three places as of now.

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St. Paul, Va.: Will the Republicans need a leader for this resurgence or will a groundswell of disenchanted voters propel several to the forefront of GOP?

Dan Balz: They will certainly need a leader in they hope to win back the White House in 2012. It would be helpful to them to have some leadership as they look toward 2010. But it's possible that, in 2010 at least, they can hope that there is enough dissatisfaction with President Obama that voters will turn to the Republicans more out of protest at the Democrats than conviction that the Republicans have the full answers. That is the nature of some midterm elections. But as some of the Republicans I interviewed for the Sunday piece said, the GOP can have a winning record in 2010 and still not have really solved their problems. A good 2010 for the Republicans doesn't guarantee a successful 2012, and one key to 2012 will be to find attractive leaders who can articulate a conservative agenda in a way that energizes the Republican base and holds the middle of the electorate.

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Capitol Hill: Mr. Balz--First off, thanks for your quality reporting and analysis. Your work always does a nice job of putting events in perspective.

Here's my question: What are the prospects for a meaningful third party? It seems that the Republicans are unwilling to tolerate moderates, which explains why they are becoming extinct in places like New England. With many moderates and independents unwilling to vote for a right wing ideologue, but also unhappy with the democratic leadership in Congress, I would think the timing would be right for a Bloomberg-type figure to make splash in national politics. Is this possible? Likely? Or are the two parties just too powerful?

Dan Balz: Thanks for your kind words. Very much appreciated.

I'm skeptical about the prospects for a genuine third party movement, simply because the two-party system is so ingrained in this country's voting habits and behavior. I do not rule out, however, an effective protest candidate in the 2012 presidential race. There's enough anger and dissatisfaction out there right now, aimed at both parties, to make it possible.

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Richmond, Va.: Help me out here! Am I being subjectively analytical, or OVERLY optimistic?

With heath care reforming passing by 5 votes in the House, I would say is good news for Republicans. All the arm twisting by Pelosi and Obama only gave them a 5 vote victory. What does this narrow vote mean for ultimate passage?

Dan Balz: This was never going to be easy. For Speaker Pelosi and for Sen. Harry Reid, assembling a majority coalition for health care is extraordinarily difficult. Pelosi presumably had the easier job, given the makeup of the House and the rules under which they operate, and yet they had few votes to spare on Saturday night. Senate Democrats will have an enough tougher time. But Pelosi ultimately may have the most difficult job if the bill clears the Senate and then comes back to both chambers after a House-Senate conference. She may be looking for a different coalition in the House at that point, one with fewer liberals and more moderates. The Democrats appear determined to pass a bill, but they've got some big hurdles ahead.

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Laurel, Md.: What happened last week is a very ordinary political micro-cycle. When a new party takes the White House they normally give back seats the first two years. But since recessions don't normally last four years, presidents elected during one are usually re-elected when things get better (Bush II, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon).

Republicans better devise a strategy for constructive engagement on Obama's priorities, because they're not taking any part of the federal government until at least 2016.

Dan Balz: Your point is right -- up to a point. What could cause the Obama White House problems is a big Republican victory in 2010 in which the Democrats' margins in the House and/or Senate are reduced enough that the president will have to engage with the Republicans to get things done. Bill Clinton learned that lesson after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. After that, he shifted right and ended up getting some substantial achievements with Republican help (Republicans would say they did it with an assist from Clinton). That's how welfare reform got through after two earlier vetoes and it's how Congress reached a deal on a balanced budget (remember those days?!). It could be that after 2010, both sides will find constructive engagement more appealing than they do now. Perhaps.

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Bronx, NY : Lincoln, upon being urged to fire Gen McClellan and hire anybody to lead the Union Army, said "that's all right for you, but I have to replace him with somebody." Who's the front man for this resurgence? Cantor was supposed to be the star, then Jindal, and now what are we down to, the dynamic Pawlenty? They need somebody, and the only grown up they have left in that party, Romney, just flat out ain't getting any fundamentalist votes. Some resurgence. There's nobody on the bench.

Dan Balz: This is a real problem for the Republicans. It's difficult to become that leader from the House or Senate. Newt Gingrich did it for the Republicans in the early 1990s but he's an exception to the rule and, once in power, showed the limitations of the congressional wing as the face of the party. It will take the presidential campaign and the long nomination battle for someone to emerge. Nomination campaigns almost always end up enhancing the winner, so we'll see who has the components needed to capture the nomination in 2012. At this point, the field is relatively small and most have some obvious limitations to go along with their strengths.

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Long Island, NY: Dan, If the Republicans support a big-tent stragedy supported by Newt Gingrich, the Democrats are in trouble. But, as NY-23 shows, the purity tests demanded of the party bigs could mean the resurgence is on hold. Is it feasible that the GOP wants some time in the wilderness so that stronger arguments can be made for them in 2012 or 2014? Are they sacrificing weak-RINOs now in favor of strong conservatives further down the road?

Dan Balz: There are some smart strategists who think the Republicans may have to suffer another defeat or two to get that message, although those strategists tend to be Democrats and they may be overly optimistic on that front. But there are plenty of Republicans in prominent positions who see the dangers of, as Gov. Haley Barbour put it, trying to get too pure.

The best opportunity Republicans will have to overcome that image is through the governors' races next year. Gubernatorial races tend to be less ideological than races for Congress and as Bob McDonnell showed, it's possible to hold strongly conservative views on issues and still find a way to appeal to moderates and independents with the right priorities, message and focus. So I would watch to see what kind of candidates emerge in the governors' races next year and see whether they are successful in states that make the difference in presidential elections.

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Hartford, Conn.: When do you expect to start seeing GOP presidential hopefuls make their candidacy announcements? Before the 2010 elections? Shortly after?

Dan Balz: Well, Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty were both in Iowa over the weekend. That's the kind of activity you'll see for the next eleven-and-a-half months. Then the announcements could start right after the 2010 midterms. The advice these candidates are always given is that there is nothing more important over the next year than trying to help the party win a big victory in 2010. But there will be plenty of moving around by these prospective candidates to places like Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and behind-the-scenes work to assemble potential campaign staff, supporters and contributors across the country.

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Richmond, Va.: The Republican resurgence is basically due to liberal Democrat greed. The Democrats wanted to think that they and Obama were elected last year to push through all their liberal-PC big government policies. But they were really elected ONLY to fix the economic recession and financial crisis. The Republicans were probably leading in the polls at the time the economic crisis hit in mid-September 2008.

Dan Balz: The McCain-Palin ticket was narrowly ahead just before the economic collapse that began when Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt. But I doubt McCain would have won even if the economy wasn't quite that bad. It was a hard year to be running as the Republican nominee.

The question of what people voted for is another issue and you make a good point, one that will be debated for many years. Would President Obama and the Democrats be better off today if they had focused their energies this year almost exclusively on the economy and saved health care and climate change for later.

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Rock Hall, Md.: As you have showered conservatives and Republicans with contempt throughout your time at the Post, shouldn't your feigned concern for the Republican Party be taken with a grain of salt?

Dan Balz: I obviously disagree with you on your assertion, though it's in the eye of the beholder. I glad, at least, to see you participating in today's chat!

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Fairfax, VA: Dan. Enjoyed your recent book (listened on Audible). How is it that the GOP far right is taking credit for the VA and NJ wins when the two candidates ran straight up the middle? Is it just a case of "a win's a win so we'll take credit for it" or are they as delusional as they're starting to seem?

Dan Balz: Thanks much. I think Republicans of all stripes are taking credit for Virginia and New Jersey (and trying to minimize New York 23). That's natural. Christie won his primary against a more conservative Republican candidate and GOP strategists were happy with that, believing that it would take someone less conservative to win in New Jersey, even against the highly unpopular Gov. Corzine.

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Harrisburg, Pa: Isn't there a better historical perspective than 1994, vis a vis minority party resurgence (or lack thereof)? I'm talking about 1982-1984, when charismatic Reagan inherited double digit unemployment (and inflation) from Carter, the GOP got trounced in special and midterm elections from 1981-1983, the troubled Democrats saw no need to change anything, nominated Mondale, and got crushed in 1984. I sense a repeat of all of that from 2010-2012.

Dan Balz: That could well be what happens, which is why I mentioned earlier in the hour that Republican success in 2010 does not in any way guarantee success in 2012. That's particularly true because of the arc of the economy and the prospect that things will inevitably be better by 2012 than they are now and because Republicans have internal problems to deal with before they are whole.

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Mt Laurel, N.J.: Mr Balz,

With all due respect to the GOP win here, this election was more about Gov Corzine's inability to get anything done, especially with property taxes. I was actually surprised that the vote was as close as it was.

Dan Balz: Jon Corzine certainly was carrying a lot of baggage through the course of that campaign, and Chris Christie had his own limitations as a candidate. But New Jersey has turned pretty blue over the last decade, so it's a tough state for a Republican under almost all circumstances.

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Chicago: Can we really expect the GOP to reclaim the political center as long as "mainstream" Republican Leaders from the Congress are whooping it up with tea partiers and engaging in the sort of hyper-partisan rhetoric and tasteless, vitriolic name-calling that we saw at the Capitol last week?

Dan Balz: Republican leaders are struggling to figure out how to take advantage of this movement without getting tagged with the excesses of some of the partisans. My colleague Paul Kane rightly noted the presence of House Minority Leader John Boehner at the rally last week as an important indicator of how the leadership is now embracing the movement -- and an indicator of the potential problems that could arise.

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Albuquerque, NM: Mr. Balz, What ideas do the Republican's have to solve the problems that we face? All I see are "Tax Cuts" the old panacea....and smaller government. Are their any NEW ideas that are being brought to the surface by Republican legislators to solve our economic crisis?

Dan Balz: They'll need more specific ideas on domestic policy than they have now, but a debate about small v big government is where they'll try to stake their claim right now. President Obama has given them an opening that they didn't expect on that front. His advisers say that he was forced to do some things -- bank bailouts, a big stimulus package, auto industry intervention -- to avoid a depression and that he'd like to get the government out of those businesses as quickly as possible. But for now, it has opened up an area for Republicans to go after.

Still, the absence of fresh ideas is a problem. In the early and mid-1990s, Republican governors were doing interesting things on education and welfare policy, which were adopted nationally. But there's less opportunity for that kind of experimentation and ferment in the states right now because they have even worse budgets than they did during the early-'90s recession.

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Philadelphia, PA : When the debates were started 70% of the public supported both health care and energy reform. Now, between understanding the details + getting snowed by the Tea Partiers, the actual efforts to achieve reform have been narrower margins. But the public at large was very comfortable with the priorities of the Obama agenda.

Dan Balz: The priorities are one thing, the details are another. The president has said many times, if these things were easy they would have been done a long time ago. Any substantial health care reform is going to be hugely controversial. Same with climate change on a scale big enough to try to make any real difference. When the debate gets engaged, people get nervous about change.

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Columbia, Md.: What about the effect of increasing populations of minorities (Latinos, Asians, Blacks) on the GOP (being so myopic and exclusive)?

Don't they project an image of a party run by an "autocratic/street gang" type approach?

How do they expect to attract voters without any new constructive ideas and only obstructionist tactics?

Dan Balz: This is obviously a big, big issue for the Republicans. The electorate in 2008 was 76 percent white, the lowest it's ever been but not the lowest it will be. The percentage of white voters will continue to decline. Republicans have made repeated efforts to reach out to minority voters and some GOP politicians have done well with African Americans or Latinos. But there has been no consistency in their performance. The default position puts them at a huge disadvantage. Until the Republican Party begins to look more like the country as a whole, their candidates will have to fight hard to break decades-old voting patterns.

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Bexley, Ohio: Who is going to win the Big Ten football championship?

Dan Balz: Dear Bexley,

To be answered off line.

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Dan Balz: Thanks to everyone. That was a quick 60 minutes. We'll launch these chats whenever we have another installment in the Republican series and of course you can look for the wisdom of my colleagues in the regular political chats. Have a great week.

Dan Balz.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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