Situation of GOP begs for new faces

My itinerary for April 30 calls for me to be in the Port of Piraeus, Greece, to board the Sea Diamond for a five-day cruise of the Greek Isles. Ring a bell? Yes, my scheduled ship was the one that ran aground just off the shore of Santorini last Friday and sank into the Aegean Sea. I’m still waiting for my travel agent to tell me what’s going to happen, but the cruise line is already “spinning,” as we’d say in politics. In less than the 15 hours it took the ship to sink, it posted this happy prediction on the Internet: “the Sea Diamond will be replaced by another ship in the Louis Cruise Lines fleet; all tours using the Sea Diamond will operate as scheduled.”

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of this statement. I’ve checked out the “fleet” available to Louis Cruise Lines and it’s a few ships short of challenging the Lichtenstein Navy. But they promise a replacement. And I want to believe them. Replacement is a great concept. Replacements are the objects of great hope. Hollywood knows the romance of all this. In a 2000 film, “The Replacements,” we learned to love a bunch of misfit football players who replaced the real Washington Sentinels during an NFL-like strike. In the 1975 Robert Altman film “Nashville,” shadowy presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker of the Replacement Party offers real hope to those who want a populist alternative to politics as usual.

I bring all this up because the Republican Party could benefit from the romance of replacement. This came to mind when I read the results of a poll conducted last month by the New York Times and CBS News. The pollsters asked Americans whether they have a favorable or not-favorable impression of the Republican Party. Fifty-eight percent said “not favorable,” the second-highest negative for the GOP since 1985 in this poll series. The poll proceeded to ask about “the first word that comes to mind” when you think about the Republican Party. The single most-mentioned substantive negative was “corrupt/illegal.” At 9 percent, that outpolled “rich/upper class” (7 percent), “disorganized” (5 percent), “big business” (3 percent), and “Iraq/war/military” (2 percent). So aside from some big general negatives (16 percent), corruption and illegality is the single greatest focus of angst about the Republicans.

It is interesting that the previous high in GOP negatives, 59 percent, came in December 1998 when several things were happening at once that might have given the party a black eye. Some would point to President Clinton’s impeachment that month. But that probably wasn’t the key to the rising negatives for Republicans. That month also saw the resignations of top House Republicans Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Bob Livingston (La.), both in the shadows of charges of improprieties. But only a few months later, GOP negatives fell more than 10 percentage points. Why? I would argue that the replacement of Gingrich with “Coach” Dennis Hastert (Ill.) gave the GOP the honest new face it needed to overcome the sleazy image of his predecessors in Republican leadership.

Now Hastert and some of his associates are part of the problem that begs for replacements again. The GOP needs new faces to lead the party, in Congress and the executive branch, in our state capitols and legislatures. It’s not just swing voters that need the hope engendered by new blood, it’s the party base, too. The New York Times poll found that a minority of Republicans, 46 percent, expect a Republican to be elected president in 2008. That is unacceptable. If a small Greek cruise line can find a replacement ship in just a few weeks, the Republican Party should be able to find some new faces that will inspire more hope for victory in next year’s elections.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.