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A GOP leadership this Dem likes

By the time you’re reading this, either Democrats are crowing about winning a special election in a congressional district that voted twice for George Bush and where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by over 70,000; or Republicans are bragging about taking away a Democratic House seat.

While the Democrats will have the better argument, the dialogue will likely miss the fundamental political point — whatever the outcome of the special election, the GOP continues to be a rolling train wreck that has been decimated in two successive election cycles and whose geographic and ideological isolation has given rise to a leadership seemingly intent on destroying what is left of its once-grand party.

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Pew has been asking voters to evaluate “Republican leaders in Congress” since 1994. Never before, in that entire time span, have fewer Americans approved of GOP leaders — just 28 percent. Indeed, Democratic congressional leaders have never fared as poorly as do today’s Republicans. Favorable ratings of the Republican Party generally have also hit record lows. Republicans who prefer denial to reality will counter, “It’s all Bush’s fault — and he’s gone.”

While President Bush certainly did unprecedented damage to the Republican brand, that analysis ignores the fact that ratings of Republicans continued to spiral downward, even after the former president departed for Houston. Assessments of the Republican Party in Kos’s Research 2000 poll sank by a net of nine points between January and March.

Simply put, while the Republican leadership is high-fiving itself for its unified opposition to everything President Obama is trying to do, the American public is making a decidedly more hostile gesture toward the GOP.

The underlying problem is that Republicans’ shrunken constituency has left them with a leadership in sync with what remains of their party, but so isolated from the mainstream of America that regaining public favor presents a challenge well beyond their capabilities.

The GOP’s geographic isolation is almost complete. Gallup’s 2008 polling found Republican pluralities in just seven states, and those Republican redoubts were mostly the smaller jurisdictions of the Mountain West and the Great Plains. Democrats enjoyed advantages of nine points or more in 34 states.

Republicans have won 16 states, worth just 121 electoral votes, in all of the last five presidential elections. By contrast, Democrats have gone five for five in 18 far more populous states, with 236 electoral votes.

The electoral vote numbers speak directly to Republicans’ minority status in the House; in the Senate, Democrats have proven far more adept at winning in hostile presidential territory. Republicans hold just three Senate seats in states Democrats have consistently won, while Democrats hold more than twice as many in the smaller number of regularly red states.

The GOP is ideologically isolated as well. While just a third of Americans label themselves “conservative,” the GOP has decided its weakness was being insufficiently right-wing. Anointing a reviled, drug-addled entertainer like Rush Limbaugh as the high priest of Republican purity is detrimental to Republican interests — far worse than the results would have been if Democrats had emerged from our 1972 debacle with Hunter S. Thompson as our appointed leader.

What Tom DeLay called “the bed-wetter caucus” — centrist Republicans — has been destroyed, reduced to no more than three in the House and Senate.

As I have written here before, there are no permanent victories in politics — performance counts, reality will bear out, and things change.

Short of a massive Democratic failure, however, can anyone expect a Republican leadership so out far out of the mainstream to restore the party’s relationship with the centrists and independents whose support remains key to victory in most of America? Instead, like Thelma and Louise, this dysfunctional leadership is joining hands and smiling in defiance as it drives over the cliff.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.