Hurting, Not Dead, GOP Is Working Up Alternative Ideas

Posted May 13, 2009 at 2:51pm

With as few as 20 percent of voters identifying themselves as Republicans in major polls, the GOP is in a bad way, for sure. But is it dead? No way.

[IMGCAP(1)]While former Vice President Dick Cheney and radio rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh try to isolate the party to an even smaller core, saner GOP leaders, “big tent— types, are trying to broaden the party’s appeal with ideas.

Two of them, conservative Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and moderate Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.), will be out next week with health reform alternatives to the government-heavy proposal being developed by the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats.

Kirk, from the left of the party, told me that Ryan, on the right, has the potential to be the big-ideas intellectual heir to Ryan’s one-time boss, former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who died this month leaving a legacy of affection and respect across party lines.

Meantime, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) says that his new “outreach— group, the National Council for a New America, is designed “very much in the vein of Ronald Reagan, to build an inclusive party based upon conservative principles.—

When I asked Cantor about Cheney’s statement to CBS’ Bob Schieffer that he’d side with Limbaugh over former Secretary of State Colin Powell as a model for the party, Cantor said, “That’s a false choice.—

“We have to be about attracting as many people as possible. We want the ability to win among suburbanites and in the inner city of Los Angeles by being inclusive and forward-looking.—

An even better answer might have been: “We want Powell back— after he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, along with about 10 percent of self-identified Republicans.

Limbaugh said that Powell ought to become a Democrat — and even that 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) should leave the GOP along with recent defector Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.).

The big GOP problem is that those identifying as Republicans went down from 37 percent in 2004 to 32 percent in 2008.

Pollster.com’s average of recent polling has GOP ID down to 26 percent, but in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC and CBS/New York Times polls, it’s at 20 percent.

The NBC poll shows that, 48 percent to 39 percent, voters prefer that Democrats keep control of Congress in 2010. Cheney’s approval rating in the poll is 18 percent while Obama’s is 61.

At the same time, the poll shows that voters are split, 47 percent to 46 percent, on the question of whether the government should be doing more for people or is doing too many things best left to business and individuals. There’s the GOP opportunity.

Kirk and Ryan have almost identical ideas about how Obama and Congressional Democrats, by having government do too much, could run into political trouble.

They think that, by 2010, the economy could be mired in stagflation — combined stagnation and inflation.

Their logic is that the combination of enormous increases in federal spending and debt, plus trillions printed by the Federal Reserve to pump into banks, will eventually undermine the value of the dollar, creating a surge in inflation.

Then the Federal Reserve will be forced to choose between raising interest rates to control inflation and attract foreign lenders — stifling economic recovery with unemployment still high — or letting inflation continue to rise.

Either way, they think, the hot topic of 2010 will be the 1970s “misery index,— the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate. Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980 when it was nearly 22 percent.

“Sooner or later,— Ryan told me, “the American people are going to see all this government, all this spending, getting out of control and they’re going to want to see what the other party stands for.

“We’ve got to be ready to show them who we are and how we would do things differently. We’ve got to criticize because it deserves criticism, but we can’t just be angry guys. We’ve got to have aspirational alternatives.—

GOP leaders have allowed themselves to be tagged by Democrats as the “party of no— and a recent Gfk Roper poll showed that 65 percent of voters think that Republicans are doing too little to cooperate with Obama on the economy.

That’s partly because most GOP rhetoric — as well as GOP votes on Obama proposals — is negative. But it’s not true that the party is simply saying “No.—

The press and public are not paying much attention — and the party is doing a poor job of communicating — but the GOP has presented alternatives and is developing more.

As opposed to the Democrats’ plan to move swiftly to a post-carbon economy based on wind and solar power — whose technology is far from fully developed — Republicans are proposing more nuclear power and domestic oil and gas production, with taxes on it going to clean-fuel research.

Ryan, ranking member on the House Budget Committee, produced an alternative GOP budget calling for freezes on non-defense, non-veterans spending, corporate tax cuts and $3.6 trillion less debt than Obama’s budget.

Ryan also is the author of a broad “Roadmap for America’s Future— encompassing health care, entitlement and tax reform designed to save the Medicare and Social Security programs and keep federal taxes at just 18.5 percent of gross domestic product.

Meantime, Kirk, Ryan, a GOP panel led by Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) are all coming up with health care alternatives.

Kirk’s and Blunt’s would retain the current employer-based insurance system, seek to lower costs through legal reform and make it possible for businesses and the uninsured to buy insurance in multi-state pools.

What the GOP really needs, though, is a positive, Kemp-like vision of a great, prosperous, world-leading America that applies conservative principles — limited government and individual opportunity — to close the gap between rich and poor.

Historically, Republicans have come back from defeat — in 1968 after 1964, 1980 after 1976, and 2000 after 1996 — only after Democrats made mistakes. But if Democrats overreach, Republicans need to be ready with alternatives. They’re working on it.