Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a convention center stage in February and urged President Barack Obama not to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. "What the Obama administration needs to answer is a very simple question: Where exactly do you intend to send these guys?" he asked the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
The blogosphere focused on McConnell's remarks that conservatives are more "interesting" and "fun" than liberals, but he gave more than 20 Senate floor speeches on the "don't close Gitmo" theme-and in late May lawmakers voted 90 to 6 in favor of blocking funds to close the prison, even though many Democrats had long railed against the Gitmo center.
Since Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter turned from red to blue last month, many journalists have written obituaries of the Republican Party. They have called the GOP an "endangered species," the "new Donner party" on a "death march" to "extinction." But, as Republican congressional leaders proved in taking a Democratic slam-dunk like closing Gitmo and turning it into a Republican victory, the elephants can still trumpet. "The Republican Party is in serious trouble, but we are not going to go the way of the Whigs," said Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
While the Gitmo vote was a significant victory, McConnell admits that Republicans have soul-searching to do. Just four years ago Republicans held a plurality of governorships and state legislatures while controlling both Congress and the White House. But a parade of polls makes clear that nearly every major demographic is fleeing the party, with the exception of "frequent churchgoers."
According to a recent Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans lean Democrat, and 39 percent lean Republican, while only 1 percentage point separated the two groups in 2001. Eighteen states have gone Democratic in five straight presidential elections. Young voters went with Obama by a 2-to-1 margin. Hispanic support for the GOP dropped from 44 percent in 2004 to 31 percent last November.
To stop the decline, the party is internally debating whether it needs to rebrand as it rebuilds. Some, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have argued that the party needs to stifle its right wing and "reach out" to the nation's moderates. "You can do only two things with a base," says Powell. "You can sit on it and watch the world go by, or you can build on the base."
Many Republicans agree that appealing to nontraditional demographics should be a central strategy. That was Ronald Reagan's approach, but some today emphasize trying to divine the next conservative icon. "The mainstream media likes to focus on Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele," said Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. "It wasn't Howard Dean who resulted in Barack Obama's election."
But "reaching out" is a phrase that worries some conservatives who see that as the first step to abandoning core conservative ideals. For the first time in Gallup's history, a recent poll showed that more than half of Americans see themselves as pro-life. "Conservative values are in much better shape than the GOP," Wehner said.
Lawmakers of this persuasion make up a sizeable group among House Republicans because moderate Democrats have ousted many of the centrist Republicans in the last two elections. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., is one of the members who doesn't see compromise on issues as a way forward, because "if you stand clearly on noble principles, people are more apt to follow."
With 78 fewer members than Democrats, House Republicans concede they don't have a modicum of legislative power-but they can still talk, and now communicating ideas to the American people is paramount. Sadly for House Republicans, though, the most telling feature of their leadership's new communication strategy is that no one is talking about it. At the end of April Republican leaders unveiled the National Council for a New America, a bevy of GOP figures past and present who will conduct town halls from coast to coast.
The GOP stars include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and various top guns in Congress. The ringleader of the group, Rep. Eric Cantor, is second to John Boehner in the House Republican leadership and has been one of the prominent faces in the GOP's communications battles, maniacally appearing on cable networks and radio programs.
But despite the publicity, even some Republican politicians WORLD interviewed hadn't heard of the council. One described it as "Cantor's thing." More importantly, House lawmakers-who arguably have the closest ties to "middle America" of any politicians in Washington-aren't rallying behind the effort. "I would have named it something different," Rep. Franks said. Indeed, even the website name is cumbersome: wethepeopleplan.org.
To skeptics, the GOP's first "grassroots" gathering to connect with middle America was ill-conceived: Cantor held court at a pizza place in Arlington, Va., not even outside of the Washington beltway. Republican strategists and pundits panned the idea, saying the council's figures represent "the establishment," nothing fresh. One of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's regular jibes is that "it's hard to keep from laughing out loud when people living in the bubble of the Beltway suddenly wake up one day and think they ought to have a listening tour." Rush Limbaugh scoffed as well.
Cantor's effort to broaden the GOP began with an emphasis on the economy, health care, energy, education, and security. When socially conservative groups like the Family Research Council argued that "traditional values issues" are central, Cantor quickly clarified in a radio interview: "There is no limit to what is being discussed, we want a wide open policy debate. My thought is that our traditional values, our belief in God, the faith we adhere to, our notions of how that plays out every day infiltrates everything-it colors our worldview."
But the National Council's stars don't include any Hispanics or African-Americans-two key groups that the GOP has sought because of common ground on issues like abortion and gay marriage. The one non-white leader is Indian-American Jindal; Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele isn't participating.
GOP leaders are in a fighting mood. "We are going to take the president head-on. The honeymoon is over. The two-party system is making a comeback, and that comeback starts today," Steele shouted at a recent RNC meeting. But polls give Obama a popularity ranking 42 percentage points higher than the GOP, and do the Republicans have ideas to run on?
Republican leaders see a Democratic weak spot in national security issues-something underscored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent what-she-knew-and-when-she-knew-it controversy regarding U.S. treatment of terrorist detainees. North Korea's nuclear machinations will keep defense on the policy forefront.
Republican leaders also argue that the Democrats' rapid acceleration of federal spending presents the best opportunity in a generation to make the argument for limited government. Republicans hope to reconnect with independent Americans who oppose bigger deficits and tax increases. "Democrats are in fact giving us our brand back," said David Norcross, a former state Republican chair for New Jersey, who added that fiscal irresponsibility by Republicans has led to this wilderness wandering: "It is going to be an opportunity, but we have to be prepared for it."
That means the GOP needs to make thoughtful proposals regarding health care, education, immigration, and energy. The party also needs new leaders to deliver these messages. Republicans have celebrated recent city council elections in the Democratic stronghold of Northern Virginia. There, in Alexandria, a Republican and a Republican-leaning independent ousted two incumbent Democrats.
Republican strategist John Feehery predicts more small, local victories as the year progresses and the party rebuilds: "We are in a period where people are blaming Republicans for things, but as the year goes on, Democrats will be blamed and Republicans will be back in vogue." A key barometer will be this fall's races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, statewide elections where Republicans currently lead in polls.
In the meantime, the Republican Party may be at a low ebb-but it has been there before. During Franklin Roosevelt's 12-year White House reign a popular poll questions was: Is the Republican Party dead? Eventually World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower came along and occupied the White House for eight years. Some Republicans today wonder whether Iraq surge mastermind Gen. David Petraeus is a Republican.
-with reporting by Emily Belz