Republicans this week are processing two sobering new polls that found the party’s support reduced to a slim one-quarter of Americans. In the absence of a popular elected leader, its most visible figure is a polarizing radio host. Its strategic powerhouse is a still-divisive former House speaker forced from power 15 years ago.
And its hopes of demonstrating swift and visible change by pushing people of color to the fore have been dented by the stumbles of the party’s two most prominent non-white leaders, national Chairman Michael Steele and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that many prominent Republicans are forecasting a long winter.
“You think you hit bottom, and it can always go lower,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who said his party’s best hope is that President Barack Obama overreaches. “The Republicans just entered the wilderness – we’re going to wander around there for a little while before coming back stronger than ever.
“I have no idea where the bottom is just like I have no idea where the bottom is on the stock market,” he said.
“It probably gets worse before it gets better, though I’m not sure how much worse it could get,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican leader and former state attorney general. “The first chance at redemption is 18, 19 months away, and we’re going to have to gut it out here for a while.”
Another party wise man, Fred Malek, told POLITICO the party now sits at its “nadir” – though he, like others, said its best hope is to wait for the economy to tarnish Obama.
“Our leaders’ arguments are falling on deaf ears today, but they are sound. It’s just a matter of time before this becomes Obama’s recession,” he said.
The gap in trust and popularity is mirrored, prominent Republicans fret, by a vast gap between the parties’ infrastructure. Republicans also fear that they are outmatched by a Democratic publicity and fundraising machine honed in opposition, and on display this week in a successful effort to associate the GOP with radio host Rush Limbaugh. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is trying to fashion a role as the intellectual driving force of the GOP-in-exile, but he hasn’t held office since the 1990s.
Add in a politically popular and groundbreaking Democratic president in Obama, and even the Republicans’ most practiced brawlers feel the party is flat-footed.
“The Left has put together the most powerful political coalition I’ve ever witnessed,” said former House majority leader Tom DeLay, whose 1994 GOP coalition once might have vied for that honor. “Obama improved upon it in the presidential campaign, but the Republicans are still in denial.”
Added John Weaver, a former McCain aide: “We’re working damn hard to see how fast we can hit rock bottom – we’re allowing the Democrats to completely not only set the national agenda but also set our internal agenda.”
Meanwhile the party’s governors, typically a source of strength for an out-of-power party, are largely overshadowed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Some, like Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and South Carolina's Mark Sanford, have inserted themselves into the party's leadership scrum, while others are keeping their focus local and bracing for the storm.
“It’s just a matter of enduring the early days of transformation – it’s never going to be pretty and it’s never going to be fun to watch it play out beyond a pure entertainment level,” Utah’s Jon Huntsman told POLITICO. “We haven’t had a healthy, rigorous dicussion about our future in many years, and meanwhile the world has changed. Unless we want to be consigned to minority-party status for a long time, we need to recognize these tectonic shifts happening under our feet.”
Some of the GOP dissatisfaction has focused on new chairman Michael Steele, who has delivered a string of gaffes on television, while not putting much infrastructure in place at the party’s headquarters. Steele criticized Limbaugh as being merely an “entertainer” who makes “ugly” remarks – then said he was sorry two days later.
“He’s like Howard Dean, cubed,” griped one former party official. “People are kind of waiting to be led, and he’s just leading himself into green rooms.”
Ron Kaufman, a top political aide to the first President Bush, said Steele “bit off more than he could chew a little bit. He made a lot of change, perhaps, before he was ready to replace what was there before.”
“He’s trying to do the right thing,” Kaufman added, saying it was “too soon” to give a final judgment on Steele.
The discomfort with Steele is part of a broader complaint about a lack of a national leader, a common condition for an opposition party.
The party’s congressional leadership has shown discipline and focus in offering a near-unanimous rejection of Obama’s stimulus package -- but has not, so far, succeeded in offering a palatable alternative to the popular president’s economic leadership. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that, by a 48-20 percent margin, Americans believe Democrats will do a better job digging the U.S. out of recession than Republicans.
“It’s unclear what is the ‘Republican stimulus plan,’ ” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told POLITICO last week, urging congressional Republicans to come up with clear alternatives to Obama’s policies.
Richard Viguerie, the direct mail pioneer who helped create the modern conservative movement, was more scathing in a press release Wednesday.
"The 'Rushification' of the GOP is the natural and inevitable result of the fact that those who are supposed to provide leadership -- Republican elected officials and party officers -- are doing little to bring the party back," he said. "Nature abhors a vacuum, and there is no vacuum in nature as empty as the leadership of the Republican Party today."
Conditions are more mixed in the states, where leaders say they are – for better or worse – insulated from the national storm.
“I am bullish on the Republican Party in Iowa,” said that state’s new GOP chairman, Matt Strawn. “I haven’t gotten a single call from a county leader on the Chairman Steele-Rush Limbaugh back and forth.”
Others are more downbeat.
“Up here we’ve got a very serious rebuilding problem and it starts at the ground level,” said Rath, of New Hampshire. “With all due respect, what Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich or Michael Steele says is hardly relevant to the country chairman who’s trying to find candidates for the legislature.”
As for the search for national leaders, said Rath, “I’m not sure we’re ready for that yet – I’m not sure we need a serious relationship right now. I think we just need to sort through where we’ve been for a while.”
To the extent that Republicans see hope, it’s in Obama himself, the leftward tilt of his policies, and the chance that he comes to be blamed for the nation’s economic woes.
“This guy, just like [Bill] Clinton, is misreading the election results and governing from the left,” said Kaufman.
“In politics nothing’s ever as good or as bad as it seems,” said another seasoned observer, former party chairman Ed Gillespie, who wasquoting one of his predecessors, Haley Barbour. “Even if it’s not as bad as it seems, though, things are bad for the Republican Party right now.”