Analysis: Does The GOP Need A Spokesperson?

5025813Democrats are having a field day musing over who the "leader" of the Republican Party might be, in no way hiding their glee as they point and snicker at the messy circumstances the GOP currently finds itself in.

Is Rush Limbaugh the voice of the Republicans? Or perhaps Dick Cheney? Newt Gingrich? Michael Steele? Sarah Palin? Mitt Romney? Karl Rove? Eric Cantor?

And the list goes on.

The Democratic National Committee calls it "GOP Survivor" and is reveling in their rivals' quagmire.

But Democrats, while understandably giddy, should remember that they were in a comparable situation just over four years ago.

After President George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004, there was similar quagmire talk and the identical question was being asked of the Democrats. They had lost ground in both the House and Senate, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle failed in his re-election bid, and a newly minted senator, Barack Obama, was just a glimmer in the eyes of the crystal ball readers.

Was John Kerry the voice of the Democratic Party? Or perhaps Al Gore? Nancy Pelosi? Hillary Clinton? Howard Dean?

And the list went on.

Well, without one designated "leader" or "spokesperson," the Democrats recovered just fine just two years later, picking up 31 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate in 2006 and taking control of both houses of Congress for the first time since they lost both in 1994.

So, if it wasn't one compelling Democrat that was the driving force behind their quick turnaround, then what was it?

Simply put, it was the political climate. Dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush was increasing, the Iraq war was dragging on, Republicans in Congress were becoming involved in some sketchy stuff (remember Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, Duke Cunningham?) and voters were clearly looking for something different.

And that climate only worsened for Republicans as President Bush's (at one point, record low) approval ratings tanked. That, combined with the excitement over candidate Obama in 2008, sealed the fate that the Republicans currently find themselves in.

While President Obama eventually became the spokesperson for the Democrats, it was their ideas - different ideas that the Republicans were selling - that began their turnaround in 2006 and led to the GOP getting their "tails kicked" in the last two elections, to borrow a recently uttered phrase from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn.

Today, it's not just the Democrats who should recognize the rut the Republicans are in. Republicans should also remember they were in a similar position after President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992. Two years later, with the help of eventual House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the GOP took control of Congress.

"I think the phrase, 'Don't tell me it can't be done,' is about as good a way to start thinking about 2010 and 2012 as you could imagine," Gingrich said Monday night at a fund-raising dinner for House and Senate Republican candidates. "I recognize that 2009 is not 1994. But I want to say to you Republicans -- we have been here before."

Politically, President Bill Clinton hit a rough patch during his first year in office and the GOP took advantage by presenting an alternative - the Contract With America. Republican strategist Kevin Madden says that it was those ideas that got them elected, not one person.

"Newt Gingrich was the personality behind the last Republican electoral revolution. But voters weren't persuaded to support Republican candidates across the country because they wanted to see Newt as Speaker or Dick Armey as majority leader or Tom DeLay as whip. Instead, voters supported reform-based principles of accountability, less spending and lower taxes, " Madden told CBS News.

"Majority support for those ideas was not just limited to 'base' Republican voters, either," he added. "It included a grand coalition of independents and moderate-to-conservative Democrats who were fed up with a Democratic-controlled status quo in Washington."

That's what the GOP needs to do now, Madden argues.

"I believe it would actually be a mistake to put all of the party's chips on just one individual, one spokesperson for the party," he said. "It's imperative that, as a party, we rebuild around reform-based ideas as opposed to just rebuilding around one individual. "

Right now, as President Obama basks in a 63 percent approval rating according to the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll (taken three weeks ago), not many Americans are listening to the Republicans, mainly because they're content with how the president is doing.

But as unemployment numbers rise and the economy continues in its funk, some of those solid poll numbers are beginning to show slight cracks, just enough to get the Republicans fired up. They're now firing at the president and, especially, at Congressional Democrats, on the economy, the economic stimulus plan, health care, the president's handling of the auto and financial bailouts, and other issues.

The questions that will determine whether the GOP will ultimately find success in the near future are these: Do they have attractive alternative ideas? And will the political climate be conducive to many Republicans, not just one Republican, selling those ideas?

If the answers are yes, the Republicans could possibly pick up seats in the 2010 midterm elections, and much of the discussion about a fractured, rudderless and leaderless GOP will quickly dissipate.

If the answers are no, brace yourselves for even more analysis about the confused state of the Republican Party as the 2012 presidential race heats up.
Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' Political Director.
  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBSNews.com's Executive Editor, Washington.

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