The Public Eye: The Republican Dilemma

By Bob Burnett
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 07:03:00 PM

After Barack Obama’s victory in the November presidential election, the Republican Party attempted to re-brand itself, but hasn’t come up with compelling ideas or attractive leaders. So far, the GOP has been unwilling to modify its conservative credo. That’s good news for Democrats. 

Since the Regan era, there have been four pillars of Republican ideology: provision of a gargantuan military, smaller government, reduced taxes, and competent management. While the Bush-Cheney regime promoted a bloated defense budget, they undermined the other three notions. The federal bureaucracy grew, as did the budget deficit. While wealthy Americans got massive tax cuts, working families saw real income decrease. Most important, Bush-Cheney were revealed as incompetent managers. Most voters recognized that because Republicans don’t believe in government they aren’t psychologically prepared to manage it. 

The Republican Party lacks leadership. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have been discredited as national leaders, as has 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain. That leaves a flock of second-rate politicians competing to be head of the Republican Party: John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin, and Michael Steele. At the moment, hate-radio host Rush Limbaugh is filling the GOP leadership void. 

None of these Republicans has near the popularity of Barack Obama. That wouldn’t be a crippling problem if Republicans had a coherent positive ideology they could offer as a counter to Obama’s. But they don’t. Their core principles were eviscerated by the Bush-Cheney presidency. 

Republicans have lost national security as their signature issue. Obama retained the respected Republican Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. And the president continued many defense initiatives, such as the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most important, Obama developed a strong base of support among military personnel and their families. 

Republicans should be able to use the “big government” shibboleth against Obama, but this hasn’t proved effective for two reasons. First, voters understand that Bush-Cheney grew the government and the federal deficit to its present humongous size. Second, because of Bush-Cheney’s recession, Americans currently want more government, not less. They like Obama’s stimulus package and want the feds to straighten out the financial industry and provide health care, education, clean energy, and a host of other needed services. 

Shortly after taking office, Obama provided tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans—everyone but the wealthy. Republicans not only lost the tax issue, they’ve been reduced to whining that the rich aren’t getting their fair share of the pie. 

So far, the GOP rebranding effort has been a dismal failure. If the mid-term elections were to be held today, Democrats would increase their majorities in the House and Senate. Nonetheless, 18 months is a long time in politics and it’s possible Republicans can reverse the tide. 

To maintain their momentum Democrats have to stay on course. Obama has to continue to govern in his calm methodical manner. And he must work his list of issues in order of their priority to the American people. For example, getting a healthcare plan through Congress is more important than securing a new immigration plan. In the process, Obama has to continue to ignore insults from the right or complaints from the left that he isn’t moving their pet issue fast enough. He must stay focused. 

Between now and Nov. 2, 2010, Republicans are likely to continue to thrash as they search for leadership and a compelling raison d’être. For Democrats to win bigger congressional majorities in the mid-term elections, President Obama has to accomplish five things. First, he has to continue to keep America safe. Another terrorist attack would be a devastating injury to the country’s psyche and would shatter the administration’s veneer of competence. 

Second, he has to show progress in Iraq and has to get most of our troops out of Iraq by election day. We also have to appear to be on the right track in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Third, Americans have to believe the worst of the recession is over and the economy is returning to normal. In November 2010, unemployment may still be high, but working-class Americans must feel that the United States is headed in the right direction. 

Fourth, Obama has to deliver on healt hcare. He’s made it his signature issue and there has to be substantial progress. Obama’s solution doesn’t have to be perfect—he doesn’t have to deliver a single-payer system—but it has to be perceived as moving in the right direction, solving the most egregious problems. 

Finally, Obama has to stay cool. While they have radically different ideologies, there are interesting similarities between Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Americans continued to trust Reagan even when they disliked his policies. Now Obama has that élan. So long as he maintains it, Democrats will strengthen their hand in Washington while Republicans stagger into the political wilderness. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at