Recent special elections for House seats in Illinois and Louisiana that were once reliably Republican sent the GOP an unmistakable signal that the party's 25-year-old playbook is obsolete: Simply spouting an undiluted conservative message doesn't consistently work anymore, even in some of the nation's reddest districts. And a potential loss in a special election in Mississippi later this month could underscore that message.
The upset in Louisiana's 6th Congressional District, where President Bush won 59 percent of the vote in 2004, should jolt the GOP. Similarly, losing the Illinois seat vacated by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, whose 14th District went to Bush by 55 percent, should be a wake-up call.
An important thing to remember, though, is that when a political party is experiencing bad times, it doesn't catch many breaks. When a party is riding high in the polls and has a popular president, its flawed or inferior candidates can win in favorable or even neutral districts. But when times are bad, a party can field superior, unblemished candidates and still lose in neutral or unfavorable districts. And in hard times, a party may need stellar candidates to win even in favorable districts.
To be sure, in both Louisiana's 6th District and Illinois's 14th, Republicans nominated weak candidates. What's more, they were unadorned Reagan revolutionaries at a time when the Reagan revolution has been relegated to the history books.
For GOP candidates to run anywhere--even in the Deep South--as if we were still in the mid-1980s makes no more sense than if a Democrat tried to run today as a clone of Franklin Roosevelt.
Based on conversations in the 23 states that I have visited since the beginning of this year, many Republicans are horribly embarrassed by their party's positions and actions on fiscal policy, foreign policy, and social policy. Furthermore, many Republicans feel that their party has lost its ethical compass.
Few rank-and-file members can defend the fact that the Bush administration turned the balanced budget created during a Democratic administration into a sea of red ink. Republicans in control of both the executive and legislative branches elevated tax-cutting to near-sacred significance while turning a blind eye to out-of-control spending, a set of priorities that made no sense.
Scandals at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, meanwhile, sullied the GOP's image. And although most Republicans originally supported the president's decision to go to war in Iraq, many more now question the strategies and tactics, and bemoan that the U.S. went in with too few forces and no occupation plan. Party members also acknowledge that the United States has squandered the global respect and goodwill that arose from the 9/11 tragedy. Finally, they voice disappointment with the GOP's emphasis on social, cultural, and religious issues, pointing especially to the controversies over the Terri Schiavo case and over embryonic-stem-cell research.
Although former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan is hardly representative of any group other than perhaps the brightest economists in the world, when he noted in his book that he sometimes doesn't recognize his own party, he could have been speaking for millions of fellow Republicans.
Some Republicans argue that Sen. John McCain might be just the medicine to turn the GOP "back to the future," even though he will be 72 in August. They hope that he can revive the party of Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Taft, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, a party that struck a more careful balance between defense, fiscal policy, and cultural issues. In some ways that old Republican Party would be better suited to today's world and to the future than the one we've seen over the past quarter-century.
Other Republicans forlornly suggest that before the GOP can really retool itself and rise phoenix-like from the ashes, it must first burn to the ground. It might even take more-sweeping electoral losses this year than in 2006 for the party to hit bottom, they argue. Only then, they say, could the Republican Party abandon its illusions and offer a more attractive vision for the future.
This article appears in the May 10, 2008, edition of National Journal.