When asked who might lead the GOP out of the wilderness, the name John McCain is not often mentioned prominently by many of the party leaders gathering in St. Paul, Minn.
It’s not only his age, or that he’s never been a party kind of guy. For many Republican strategists and idea generators, the road to redemption starts with the new generation of Republicans in the House of Representatives. They’re looking beyond November 2008, to Novembers in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
While GOP talent in past party downturns has sometimes bubbled up from state legislatures and governors’ mansions — indeed, that’s where McCain found his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — many believe the fate of the party nationally depends as much on a House with fewer but fresher Republican faces, who can lead the way by offering practical solutions to the economic uncertainties confronting working America.
In fact, many House Republicans, while supportive of McCain, say their own rehabilitation would be better served with Barack Obama in the White House. In opposition, Republicans might differentiate themselves and gain seats in 2010 as the party out of power rather than suffer more losses on top of those in 2006 and those they expect in 2008. Of course, they’re in opposition now in the Congress, but they complain that too few Americans know it.
They’re done with “denial,” says freshman California Republican Rep. Kevin O. McCarthy, finished with "the stages of death,” and looking forward to what Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin calls a "cleansing."
"We came in as the reform party," said Ryan. "We lost our way. And now we have to get it back. And that's going to take some new faces."
Think not Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich, but Yogi Berra, who described a broken nose as his worst injury and his best injury because it cleared his sinuses.
What might a "cleansed" party look like in the House? Count on fresher faces for sure, albeit fewer of them. The House Republicans who are retiring or most endangered in November have an average of eight terms in office.
Led by a new generation, including some members who were still in high school during the Reagan years, the cleansed party would be less comfortable with the rhetoric of "cultural issues,” preferring the language of reform and problem-solving.
While hardly bipartisan or conciliatory, this approach confesses the obvious: that Republicans may not have all the answers. It looks to "common-sense solutions" to "everyday problems," as Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor declares on his home page, on issues once ceded to Democrats.
The theme and tone, and variations of such a philosophy, have been the province in recent years mostly of governors, among them Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Bill Clinton in Arkansas and George W. Bush in Texas.
More recently, Republican rising stars such as Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have revived it.
But only occasionally are the governors and their congressional counterparts on the same page simultaneously. And in this instance, the fresh thinkers with the most influence seem to be on Capitol Hill.
Cantor, 45, represents Virginia's 7th District, stretching from the suburbs of Richmond north to Front Royal to the exurbs of Washington. Currently chief deputy whip, he is invariably named first when GOP members predict their future House leadership after Ohio Rep. John A. Boehner, the minority leader, and Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, the whip. Other representatives under 55 whose names emerge include McCarthy, 43; Ryan, 38; Adam Putnam, 34, of Florida; and Mike Pence, 49, of Indiana.
"I look at it, not in terms of the next four months, but of the next five or 10 years," Cantor said in an interview. "I don't believe thatwe need to adhere to a mandate that we are different for difference’s sake."
"We are in a post-partisan mode," he said, in which people are uncertain about their economic well-being and the future for their children. While they "don't believe government is the be-all and end-all," he said, "we've got to find the balance where government works."
The Reagan years confronted "very different circumstances,” he said. “Communism was still on the rise. Tax rates were at 70 percent. We had a left-leaning Supreme Court." The Gingrich years, he said, were simply a continuation of the Reagan era.
Now, he said, "I think the predominance and focus of the issues have to do with economic security, health care security and whether the hope and promise of this country will be as strong for the next generation."
Think not about a "Contract with America" but something more prosaic, like the "Roadmap for America's Future" prepared by Ryan, focusing on fixing "health care, Medicare, Social Security, our tax system and our growing debt."
This overlaps in content with the Contract with America, the ringing declaration to “restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives” that invoked Abraham Lincoln and helped bring Gingrich and former Rep. Dick Armey of Texas to leadership in the House. But the swagger and bluster, unsustainable in defeat, are gone.
The Roadmap, Ryan said, is "a centrist document," noting that he even "took three or four ideas from Democrats. I think we have to be mindful of capturing the spirit of the American people. We are still a center-right country. We have to come up with a center-right agenda. … We need to explain how and why we're different, and why our ideas are better. You can do that in a very civil way, without the bitterness that's plagued politics."
"Common-sense conservatism" is what McCarthy calls it. "We don’t sit back and just say they're doing it wrong. We lay out a solution for every issue. 'If we were in charge, this is what we would do.' In the end you may have to compromise. … You can’t be so partisan that you think only your ideas are right."
There’s no telling how long this will last or how high it will rise, or whether more traditional party conservatives in the House will go along. Events intervene. Republicans are chastened and confessional now, and anxious to distinguish themselves not only from Democrats but also from the Republicanism of President Bush and Karl Rove and from incumbency itself.
And then there’s the upcoming election, which could leave the Republican conference in the House considerably more conservative, less inclined to centrist documents and rhetoric.
Historically, when a party suffers major losses in the House, the majority of losers are in districts of shaky allegiance to that party already, and necessarily more moderate than their party’s base. This produces a kind of cull of moderates, as it did in 2006, says David W. Brady, a Stanford political scientist who has carefully analyzed that year of Republican defeat.
“If the losses occur solely in the moderate districts — and there are fewer and fewer of them — then the Republicans become more conservative,” Brady said, “or as V.O. Key said, they are left with their stand-patters,” who are “further right, more resistant to change and more out of touch with the mainstream. … The more they lose, the further they are from regaining majority status and the more conservative the party.”
Nevertheless, the themes being discussed now are responsive to critiques from veterans in both parties of what went wrong for the Republicans, as well as to the advice of conservative intellectuals, such as David Frum (“Comeback: Cnservatism That Can Win Again”) and Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (“Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream”).
"If you’ve got ideological purity, you can't be a leader," said Trent Lott, the former Republican leader in the Senate. "I started out as a hard-core ideologue. … Over the years, I realized that the legislative process is the art of compromise, especially when you’re dealing with 100 men and women, 98 of whom think they can be president.
"If the Democrats pick up some more seats in Congress and Obama is president, that's going to give the Republicans a monstrous opportunity because the Democrats will overplay their hand. But you can’t rely on the mistakes of opponents. You've got to have a positive message, and that's what we kind of lost."
Armey, the former Texas congressman who was second-in-command under Gingrich, agreed. The Democrats "are most likely to do a strategic reach that's alarming to the American people," he said.
"They will create an opportunity, as they did in 1994, and if your guys are prepared for that opportunity when it presents itself, the public may turn in their direction."
"The real challenge for both parties, particularly for Republicans," said former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, Lott's partner in the lobbying firm of Breaux Lott Leadership Group, "is to convince the American people they have the capacity to govern. They look at Congress and give it failing marks. They will succeed to the extent a party can come up with a plan to govern that's balanced and not extreme. …
"They need to pick the issues, and make it clear what they've picked — like energy."
In this context, it’s easier to fathom the excitement generated among some House Republicans for the "phantom" session of Congress they've staged on the energy issue in the House chamber after the Democrats went home and C-SPAN went off.
It speaks to a problem faced by America's middle class. It can be sold as a solution, or at least part of one. It's got a foil, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), portrayed now in daily blasts by Republicans as out of touch and arrogant. And it presents daily opportunities for news conferences, with Republicans at gas stations waving gasoline receipts and tire pumps.
"The energy issue is the one thing that’s keeping everyone together at this point," said a veteran Republican staffer with long experience observing House leadership. "People are feeling better because there's a leadership focus. … Otherwise, we don’t have an issue."
At least “it shows what they can do,” says Salam, whose co-authored "Grand New Party" offers a broad critique of contemporary Republicanism that calls for "innovative ways to address the anxieties of working-class America.”
"The animal is not dead. … It says ‘we're the pragmatic guys rolling up our shirt sleeves, trying to solve the problem.’ It demonstrates that they can seize an issue and talk about it more intelligently than they have before. But is this going to last through the elections? I doubt it."
Change must go deeper, said Salam. "There's this idea that we write off the Northeast. That's crazy. What's happened there will happen in Northern Virginia tomorrow. If you can't connect with those voters, you can't connect with the country."
Salam and others say there is no shortage of potential Republican leaders in the House.
Cantor, Ryan and McCarty have come to be called the "Young Guns," a catchy moniker popularized by The Weekly Standard. The three organized a "Young Guns" fundraising operation that is actively recruiting and mentoring Republican House challengers across the country.
To some Republicans, leadership is not so much the poblem as "followership," in the words of Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, head of a conservative caucus called the Republican Study Committee.
"Personally," said Hensarling, "I've had a greater problem with followership than leadership. I wish more in our conference had understood more the damage done to fiscal responsibility" by earmarks and by measures such as the Farm Bill, the SCHIP medical assistance program and the Bush administration rescue plan for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
According to one senior GOP Capitol Hill strategist, "a significant problem facing the party right now is the failure to understand that most key elections are still about independent voters. ... We could drop to a 170- to 180-member permanent minority in the House and there will be members who love it, people who thrive in the minority environment, who love throwing bombs and red meat. They're not in Congress to legislate. They're in Congress to say 'no' and blow up the floor and antagonize. Certainly it's going to take at least one more bad election" before Republicans "get a new playbook."