The single most important factor that determines where American politics will go over the next two years is how President-elect Barack Obama fares in office. If he makes more than a few strategic or tactical miscues, his honeymoon will be abbreviated and Republicans will have the opportunity to bounce back from two consecutive disastrous elections. If the Obama administration does well, things obviously won't look so good for the GOP.
A key question to consider is whether Republicans can quickly address the fundamental problems facing their party, or whether they ignore or misdiagnose their problems and wait for Democrats to self-destruct. In several conversations with some of the smartest Republican pollsters and strategists, it's clear that many have a good fix on the problems of their party. However, there is considerable concern that many elected officials and constituent groups within the GOP are reluctant to hear the advice these consultants feel they need.
I have offered several top Republican consultants the opportunity to speak candidly, and without attribution, to their party's elected officials. Here are the views of two, with over 50 years of professional campaign experience between them, edited only for clarity:
"The temptation among Republicans will be to blame this on a variety of factors that are temporary in nature and will go away. By concluding this, it will not force them to rethink how Republicans are perceived and as a result they will conclude they do not need to change.
"For instance, they will blame this election on George Bush. They're not entirely wrong about this of course, but the fact of the matter is that post-election surveys show more voters who chose Obama were voting against John McCain than were voting against Bush.
"They will also blame this election on the economy. In this too, they're not entirely wrong, and certainly as the Dow went crashing in September, McCain's numbers came down as well. But I really think this election was much more generically about change than it was specifically about the economy.
"The key conclusion is that the desire for change is driven much more by damage to the Republican brand than by anything else, including the president. I think there are a number of reasons for this (in addition to Bush fatigue and the war). To me, these are the two big ones: first, deep disappointment in Congress and with individual members. This is driven in part by the corruption scandals, in part by profligate spending and in part by Republicans' failure to address the problems people are really concerned about.
"Second, the shallowness of our policies. Republicans are a whole lot better at being against things than at being for things. That's a problem if you're in the majority. On topics that the center really cares about, such as education and health care, we do one of two things. We either avoid them like the plague and are scared to talk about them or, if we say anything at all, it is to propose a tax cut or a tax credit.
"The Republican coalition has been a three legged stool: social conservatives, defense hawks and fiscal conservatives. With regard to social conservatives, there is nothing to suggest we're losing ground here. They showed up in the same numbers as before and voted only slightly less Republican than they used to. With regard to defense hawks, the issues of the war in Iraq and terrorism have disappeared. They were not quite, but almost, irrelevant on Election Day.
"With regard to fiscal conservatism, taxes and spending have declined as concerns and we've hurt the party brand. Moreover, Republicans have never understood the difference between being punished for a tax increase and rewarded for a tax cut. The first hurts, and the second does not help.
"Many Republican commentators point out that, even though we lost, this is still a center-right country. It seems to me that statement misses the point. People have changed, although they have not changed the labels they use. There are clearly more people now who want government to address the problems they have to deal with than used to think so in the past. Conversely, there are fewer people now who do not want government involved.
"This goes to the long-term trend of Republican losses in the suburbs. This is a trend that has been more than 20 years in the making and seems to be moving from the Northeast in a westerly direction. It's no longer just New Jersey and the Philly suburbs, but also the Denver suburbs, Maricopa County, Clark County, Orange County, etc. To me, the core reason we're losing them is that, as Republicans, we're not promising to fix the problems they're concerned about, including health care, education and retirement.
"So when I hear people say it is still a center-right country and that we need to return to our conservative roots, I think that is a long-term strategy to do nothing and a strategy that will keep us in a permanent minority. Here is another point from the post-election data: People really don't want to pay higher taxes. So, on the one hand, they want to have government address their problems and on the other hand they don't want to pay for it.
"This should be our niche: find solutions to problems like education and health care that spend government funds more efficiently, without spending more. That sounds much more like a winning strategy to me."
A second, equally experienced Republican pollster put his four tough-love suggestions like this:
"First, walk the walk on the ethics stuff. Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Ted Stevens, Vito Fossella -- these guys seem to think they are entitled. We ought to be the ones cleaning house.
"Second, Republicans ought to be the ones really starting to get creative on the energy issue. We ought to be putting our best thinking into coming up with strategies and new ideas on this issue. It isn't going away, and we have to get out in front on it.
"Third, focus on regaining our advantage on technology. We had our heads handed to us on the Internet campaign, e-campaigning, etc. We need to focus on developing new technological methodologies for communicating with voters.
"Fourth, stop being [misguided] on immigration. We are alienating huge parts of the electorate, we are turning our primaries into single issue 'hate' contests and ignoring the single fastest growing bloc of voters in the country."
There will be several more of these, offered to Republicans as food for thought. For Democrats, it's a little glimpse into how some of the best Republican minds are diagnosing their own party's problems.