Steele declares it’s time for GOP to focus on the future

PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, Md. — Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele declared Tuesday that the long period of GOP introspection was over and that the beleaguered party has turned a corner.

“The era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over. It is done,” Steele told RNC members at his first meeting as chairman. “The Republican Party is again going to emerge as the party of new ideas. It will take some time, for sure, but it is beginning now.”

{mosads}After two consecutive electoral drubbings and new polls showing the GOP having lost huge amounts of voters from nearly every demographic group, Steele’s party may have few places to go but up.

But to do so will take a new approach — a path Steele tried to lay out on Tuesday. Along with declaring an end to the navel-gazing — something Steele himself has engaged in — the chairman also declared open season on President Obama, whom he said Republicans have been too shy about criticizing.

“We are going to take the president head on. The honeymoon is over,” Steele said. “The two-party system is making a comeback, and that comeback starts today.

“Many have suggested that we need to be careful, that we need to tiptoe around President Obama, that we have to be careful not to take him on, at least not directly,” Steele said. “If we have the courage of our convictions, and we do, then we will and we must stand against these disastrous policies, regardless of the president’s personal popularity.”

Holding the RNC meeting just over the border between Maryland and the District of Columbia, Steele pointed to the party’s governors as the opportunity to build a comeback. Strategists have made a point of holding up former Govs. Tommy Thompson (Wis.), John Engler (Mich.), Terry Branstad (Iowa), Bill Weld (Mass.) and others as leaders who held office before the GOP won back a majority in Congress.

“I may not know much, but I do know that our comeback is well under way in states all across America,” Steele said.

From tea parties held around the nation to local energy at Lincoln Day dinners, Republicans on the national committee sense an opportunity, largely based on excitement at the base level.

“I’ve seen the energy out there in my own state,” said Tina Benkiser, chairwoman of the Texas Republican Party. “They’re generally distressed as to what’s going on in Washington, D.C. Actually, they’re angry. And I don’t blame them. I share a lot of that too, but we’re going to channel that into real, productive activity.”

But unlike 1994, Republicans find themselves without momentum that could vault them back into power. Though the party boasts rising stars among its gubernatorial ranks — including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and others — fewer voters call themselves Republicans than at any time since Ronald Reagan sought reelection.

An analysis of Gallup surveys taken since the beginning of the year shows Republicans have lost huge numbers of voters among virtually every demographic since 2001. Republicans have lost 7 percentage points among male voters and 5 percentage points among female voters.

The party is down nine points among those between the ages of 18 and 29 and, perhaps most disturbingly, down six points with voters between 50 and 64 years old, the generation of voters who came of age when Reagan was president.

In 2001, Democrats held a one-point advantage in party identification — including independents who lean toward one party or another. Today, that advantage is 14 points.

Even in districts with major Republican advantages — such as New York’s 20th congressional district, where Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) recently won a hotly contested special election despite a 70,000-voter Republican registration advantage — independents have broken for Democrats.

That race demonstrated Republican woes perhaps better than any other of late. The GOP candidate, Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, publicly distanced himself from the national party, while Murphy did his best to associate himself with Obama and several major pieces of legislation Congress was passing at the time.

Apparently in recognition of a perceived ideas gap, Steele said Tuesday that he was encouraged by organizations, like the National Council for a New America organized by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), as vehicles aimed at building new proposals and ideas Republicans need to reconnect with voters.

Steele’s speech, coming after a rocky first few months as chairman, sought to help turn the GOP into something other than what Democrats have tried to portray as the Party of No.

“We will conquer the challenges not of the last century, but the challenges of our time. Our success will not be found in dusting off old campaign manuals from the ’70s and ’80s. Our success will be found in speaking directly to the American people about a rebirth of the American Dream for this generation and generations to come,” Steele said.

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