Wilderness years for the GOP

In 1937, Washington Republicans were in a political pickle.

After spending his first term delivering bold change to a Depression-era electorate hungry for a new direction, President Roosevelt had been rewarded with the biggest landslide in Electoral College history. On his coattails, Senate Democrats had netted five more seats. The Senate was left with a mere 16 Republicans.

“[Republicans] had shouted down everything the New Deal was trying to do,” said former Clinton administration speechwriter Jeff Shesol, who’s writing a book about that political era. “They were totally marginalized.”

The Loyal Opposition was adrift. How should it counter a Democratic president carrying such an electoral mandate?

Republicans had few options. They could keep fighting, or they could set aside their differences and work with FDR. Instead, they chose Door No. 3.

“They just went quiet,” said Shesol.

Seven decades later, congressional Republicans have made clear they can’t stand the sound of silence.

If anything, the leading voices of the minority party are louder than ever. What are they saying about President Obama?

“I hope he fails,” said Rush Limbaugh, the voice of an increasingly earnest — and influential — wing of the Republican Party in Washington.

What was striking was not that a right-wing pundit sought to see this president’s plans to revitalize our economy crash and burn. What’s noteworthy is how frightened other prominent Republicans were to challenge Limbaugh’s sentiment.

Not a challenging word from House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele initially criticized Limbaugh’s remarks, but when that ruffled right-wing feathers, Steele’s spine went soft. This week, the chairman apologized for his brush with Rush.

So what is the Steele Solution for repairing the GOP brand? It’s not what you say — it’s how you say it. To that end, Steele promised a new GOP branding effort that would be “off the hook,” applicable to “hip-hop settings.”

Louisiana governor and 2012 Republican presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal — to whom Steele recently sent some “slum love” for doing a “friggin’ awesome” job — offers a third approach. During his 12-minute response to President Obama’s congressional address, Jindal twice referenced the way government responds to natural disasters — a Bush administration legacy that many GOP strategists would just as soon forget.

So what do you do if you’re a Republican whose strategy for improving the party’s prospects doesn’t include Rush’s fixation with failure, Steele’s slang or Jindal’s Katrina patina?

You could take the approach of a growing number of Republican governors, from Arnold Schwarzenegger (Calif.) and Jon Huntsman (Utah) to Jim Douglas (Vt.) and Charlie Crist (Fla.). As elected officials unbowed by the Washington echo chamber and responsible for delivering more than just speeches, these Republicans have gotten pragmatic — choosing to work with President Obama and the Democrats to get something done for the people of their states. So why have the leading voices of the GOP in Washington taken such a different tack?

For starters, this isn’t your grandfather’s Republican Party.

In the 75th Congress, many Republican senators were moderates. Their unwillingness to raise their voices against the popular Roosevelt stemmed in part from their need to appeal to swing voters.

But for congressional Republicans today, reaching independent voters may not be the highest priority. Most congressional Republicans represent “safe” districts and states, with electorates far more conservative than the nation as a whole. The biggest political danger facing these GOP members is the prospect of a primary challenge from the right. They need to keep their base satisfied, so they pay homage to Rush, and push sitting and would-be national party leaders like Steele and Jindal further to the right. In the process, polls show, congressional Republicans are alienating the independent voters so crucial to winning national elections.

In this week’s Wall Street Journal poll, President Obama’s favorability rating is at an all-time high, while the GOP’s rating is near its all-time low. Private polling suggests that margin is even wider among independents.

If that trend continues, the Loyal Opposition won’t just be marginalized; it’ll be isolated.And from a political failure of that magnitude, Republicans won’t soon recover.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.