There's an empty space in the Republican Party where compassionate conservatism used to be, and an opportunity for a presidential prospect to step into the breach.
The disappearance of that trademark George W. Bush brand from Washington has never been more apparent. The Republican House has gone from stalling immigration reform and cutting food stamps to precipitating a government shutdown by demanding the repeal of the health law that is the cornerstone of President Obama's legacy. The shutdown is threatening nutrition programs, cancer treatment, salaries, jobs, and much more.
It's one bad hand among several the GOP has dealt itself.
"We're not finished committing suicide here," said Republican strategist John Weaver, a veteran of the McCain and Huntsman campaigns. "We also have the opportunity to kill immigration reform, and the odds are that we will do that, just to make sure we're the angry-white-man party." He says the party may need a George McGovern-sized defeat with a candidate like Ted Cruz before it chooses another path.
Mark McKinnon, a former Bush strategist, is hoping for a more immediate course correction. "Now that the country has seen what compassionless conservatives have wrought," he says, "perhaps the GOP will start to regain a hunger for compassionate conservatives."
Republicans are doing nothing so far to cut into Obama's advantage on issues like who people trust more to help families and handle health care, and who they blame more for Washington gridlock. Gallup historical data suggest the GOP won't suffer long-term damage as a result of the shutdown, but the context for this one is different: It is happening in a dragging economy, it is coming amid other unpopular stands, and it could be followed – or accompanied – by a debt-ceiling disaster.
Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader, sees defeat looming on both the PR and policy fronts. "I don't know that I have ever seen Republicans gain one inch of ground towards their stated objective by precipitating a government shutdown," he said.
In fact, by linking Obamacare to funding the government, Republicans may have inadvertently raised public awareness of the law and boosted traffic on the new insurance marketplaces. Now they are pointing out glitches due in part to high volume – undercutting their customary insistence that Americans don't want the law. "We shouldn't be advertising the fact that the website was oversubscribed. That's not exactly a strong talking point for our side," John Feehery, a former House GOP leadership aide, says with a wry laugh.
Alarmist conservative rhetoric on Obamacare (socialist, dangerous, an existential economic threat, and a failure before it starts) is another potential land mine. What are the chances that, as people experience the law firsthand, they'll look at that rhetoric and wonder what the heck Republicans were talking about? "At least 50-50. Probably higher," says Ron Haskins, a social policy expert at the Brookings Institution and a former senior GOP aide on Capitol Hill. He says he's been worried about the direction of his party for months. "Everyday I wake up and it's something new," he says.
There are plenty of Republicans outside Congress who could serve as counterweights to the harsh image fueled by developments on Capitol Hill, and even a few inside. But elder statesmen like John McCain and Bob Dole aren't being heeded, and reactions by people eying the White House have ranged from oblique to MIA.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, running for reelection this year and a leading 2016 prospect, usually goes the route of "everyone's to blame." But he did release a campaign ad this week – " Bipartisan" – that could be read as a rebuke of House and Senate conservatives who would rather get nowhere than settle for less than 100 percent. "I say what I believe. But I also know that my job is to get things done for the people of the state," Christie says in the ad. Then, after citing tax cuts, spending cuts, improving education, and reforms of tenure, pensions and benefits, he concludes: "Everything we've done has been a bipartisan accomplishment. See, I think as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn't a dirty word."
Beyond Christie, credible counter-messengers include Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But none of them are likely to step forward, individually or as a group, unless and until they decide to run. And at that point, Feehery predicts, the thrust will be tough love for welfare and food-stamp recipients and no love for Washington. In other words, the outsiders will run hard against general dysfunction, but not against the tea party or any other faction. That would be political suicide in a primary process dominated by grassroots conservatives.