GOP in wilderness

The one clear message about the Republican Party over the past few weeks is that it doesn’t have a message. The small band of survivors from the landslide of 2008 are squabbling among themselves as to who they are, what they represent and where they go from here.

While the party bickers, the American people have already decided what it is. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Peter Hart and Bill McInturff paints a bleak picture of Republicanism. Only 26 percent view the party positively, an all-time low in that poll. A solid majority, 56 percent, blame the George Bush administration for the partisanship in Washington, and a similar number believe congressional opposition to President Obama’s policies are based on politics, not principle. Voters don’t trust Republicans to improve an economic situation many of them blame the Bush administration for creating. By a 48-to-20 margin, they believe Democrats will do a better job of fixing the economy.

As Republicans struggle to find a message to reverse this trend, they have maneuvered themselves into a tight and dangerous corner where Democrats have been able to take well-placed rhetorical potshots at them. The Republican National Committee’s new chairman, Michael Steele, was seemingly chosen literally to put a new face on the party. So far, he’s mostly fueled the fires of internal dissension. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal drew the impossible task of following President Obama’s address to the nation and failed to live up to even the low expectations for such speeches. His nasal, singsong delivery showed he was not ready for prime time.

So much for the new faces. More problematic for Republicans are two old warhorses. Newt Gingrich has re-emerged with a constant stream of advice for congressional Republicans on big-picture policies and day-to-day tactics. As the mastermind of the last successful Republican revolution, Gingrich is hard to ignore — but he’s also old news and feeds the public perception of a party bereft of new ideas.

And then there is Rush Limbaugh. The bombastic talk show host first hoped aloud that President Obama would fail a few days before the new president’s Inaugural. He not only hasn’t backed off that comment, he’s turned it into a self-promotional crusade.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend, Rush showed up looking like a doughboy imitating Johnny Cash, his bloated body clothed all in black. There he expanded on his call for the failure of the most popular president since Ronald Reagan. Initially, GOP leaders pushed back at Rush, saying he’d gone too far and no one actually wanted our president to fail. But a backlash from Limbaugh’s conservative audience panicked Republicans into recanting their position, seeming to cave to Rush’s claim to the party’s base.

The response from the battle-tested Obama team has been withering. Rahm Emanuel, one of the toughest and smartest operatives in the game, respectfully skewered the party with his faint praise for the courage of Rush, as its chief spokesman, in standing up for his beliefs. Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, campaign manager David Plouffe and others in the administration have successfully stoked the fires of that controversy. A dozen progressive websites continue to position Limbaugh as the party’s spiritual leader.

Rush, of course, is working it as hard as he can. In truth, Limbaugh cares nothing for the GOP. His mission is simply to build his audience, demonstrate his power in focusing their anger and promote his unique brand of conservatism.

Limbaugh’s army is small but loyal and is an important part of the Republican base. Party leaders seem frightened of alienating it, and that speaks volumes of their lack of confidence in a message and a strategy for expanding the GOP coalition to a winning majority.

We’ve seen this happen before — to Republicans after Barry Goldwater and Watergate, to Democrats after Newt Gingrich led the congressional GOP to victory in the mid-1990s. You remember the “permanent Republican majority,” don’t you? That fantasy of Republican leaders and an enamored press corps faded with the fortunes of George W. Bush. Neither will there be a permanent Democratic majority. The president now looks popular enough to hold most voters’ support for some time — polls show people willing to give him at least a year before he has to take ownership of the economy — but things will change, mistakes will be made and Democrats will overreach.

The question is: Will the Republicans find a vision, a message and a leader to take advantage of that inevitable swing in political fortunes?

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.  E-mail: