GOP slips, Obama sighs

In the battle to return to relevancy, this was another rough week for the Republican Party. Blunders and bickering have made things awfully tense in the wilderness, and as they try clawing their way out, Republicans find themselves heading back to a future they wanted to forget — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in yet another standoff with GOP leaders, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in a starring role.

After producing an alternative budget that turned out to be a numberless pamphlet of GOP talking points, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday announced the real GOP alternative budget, dismissing the former one as a “marketing document” that had caused a “misimpression.” After Senate Republican leaders decided against producing an alternative that could be criticized, feisty McCain has begun threatening to release his own.

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After releasing exuberant statements about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin headlining the fundraising dinner held by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the two committees had to announce that, actually, Palin’s staff had so confused them by wavering on committing to the event they invited Gingrich to keynote instead. The former Speaker doesn’t come close to being the “breath of fresh air from the business-as-usual crowd in Washington” that Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) had touted Palin as in his first announcement, but finding someone who can commit to headlining a GOP dinner must not be so easy these days.

Republicans had also touted the coming referendum on Obama’s agenda in the special election in New York’s 20th district, but this week their candidate failed to knock out the Democrat, who remained 59 votes ahead in a too-close-to-call race to fill Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D) former seat. With a GOP voter registration advantage of 70,000, the 20th district was ripe for a resounding rejection of Obama’s stimulus package, his budget, the pork-packed omnibus bill and his administration’s handling of the AIG bonuses. Though James Tedisco could still win, a referendum this was not.

Embattled Republican National Committee chief Michael Steele’s future as chairman is also looking too-close-to-call. Like Palin, who stated publicly she could run for president one day if God wants her to, Steele has indicated his willingness to run if “that’s part of the plan” and “that’s where God wants me to be at that time.” Steele has panicked Republicans across the country during his brief tenure as RNC chairman. His criticism of Rush Limbaugh was followed by a bumbling apology, which was followed by a description of the episode as “strategic.” There was also his quote in a GQ interview about abortion being a “choice,” which caused an eruption in the party and produced another emergency clarification from the chairman to his own members. Steele can’t be dumped without a two-thirds vote — an unlikely possibility, though Republicans believe a loss in the NY-20 race could put him in serious peril.

Meanwhile, you can almost hear the sigh of relief coming from the White House, following a month that ranged from bad to miserable, depending on the day. Obama’s party seems prepared to stop the squabbling and pass his budget. His carefully choreographed bombshell announcement about General Motors — in which he found a way to answer bailout anger with some very tough love — managed to throw Republicans off.

New polls show Obama enjoys the support of a majority of Americans who don’t blame him for the state of the economy. Hell, they even let Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner come out of hiding to do the Sunday shows and he finally managed to inspire some confidence — which is more than we can say for the Republican Party this week.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.