With Sen. Arlen Specter defecting from the GOP to the Democrats last week, with fewer than one-quarter of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans, with President Obama enjoying 62 percent job approval and 81 percent personal approval ratings, and with Democrats gaining seats in Congress in two consecutive elections, it’s not a good time for the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Whenever parties lose elections — or senators — it’s easy to become an armchair pundit, full of explanations and strategies to reverse course. But this time, the causes of the party’s decline are, in fact, easy to identify. They may be harder to reverse, though. But, it is clear that senators like Mr. Specter and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are part of the solution.
First, the causes: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Karl Rove. The last administration likely will be described by historians as one of the worst of the last 100 years. Mr. Bush not only tarnished the Republican brand, he made it unrecognizable. Though it took longer, the second Bush presidency finally was rejected with as much disdain as New Coke was rejected by consumers in the 1980s. Coca-Cola’s response to the dramatic failure of its product should instruct Republicans — Coke dropped the new soda and returned to its tried and true formula.
To do so, Republicans must articulate an agenda of fiscal responsibility. But it must be realistic, and reach beyond merely saying “no” to Democratic initiatives. Republicans must propose a paring down of government in areas that do not hurt children, the poor or the elderly — and may actually reduce defense spending. Republicans must offer tax policies that demonstrably create prosperity for small businesses and the middle class, not multinational corporations and their CEOs. Republicans must recognize the need for regulating private enterprise, but work to explain to Democrats where the line lies between burdening and crippling business. And last, Republicans must take a page from the Libertarian Party’s platform and wave a white flag in the culture wars. Political parties should not let themselves be hijacked by prohibitionists, moralists and missionaries.
The decline of the party should concern those of all political stripes. Though there is no mention of partisan politics in the Constitution, clearly, one-party dominance is not good for our democracy. A possible silver lining in the GOP’s troubles is the opening it creates for another party, or for the rise of bipartisan coalitions.
The way out for the GOP is within reach. Republicans such as Maine Sens. Collins and Snowe offer examples of how to win in “blue” states; be moderate on social issues, prudent but pragmatic on spending matters and work to stay in the game by negotiating with Democrats.
In fact, the GOP would do well to ask Sens. Collins and Snowe for directions as the party tries to find its way out of the desert.