GOP struggles to define its identity

The Republican Party that strode confidently into New York to nominate President Bush for a second term in 2004 would hardly recognize the one that opens its national convention Monday in St. Paul.

Bush won re-election by defeating John Kerry, Republicans expanded their House and Senate majorities, and demoralized Democrats wondered aloud how many elections it would take to regain control of Congress. Republican leaders championed deep tax cuts, partial privatization of Social Security and aggressive actions at home and abroad in the name of fighting terrorism.

Democrats seemed unsure what they stood for.

Now Republicans appear to have lost their identity, wondering when the bleeding will stop. After losing 30 House seats and control of both congressional chambers in 2006, they are anticipating even more House and Senate losses this fall.

“For the Republicans, it's going to get worse before it gets better,” said Richard Armey, a former GOP House majority leader from Texas. “I think they will take a pretty severe beating in this election,” said Armey, who helped engineer the 1994 “Republican Revolution” that gave the party control of the House after 40 years in the minority.

Of course, much of the hand-wringing will stop if McCain beats Obama. Top Republicans see that as their best short-term hope, noting that polls show McCain running well ahead of “generic” matchups between unnamed Republicans and Democrats.

Even a McCain presidency, however, would not entirely heal the deep problems afflicting their party, leading Republicans say. In interviews, many of these Republicans said the party has lost its bearings. But they were nowhere near a consensus on what to do about it.

“I think the Republican Party is in the midst of a wrenching but important transition from the Reagan-Bush era into whatever comes next,” said Ralph Reed, a GOP strategist and former director of the Christian Coalition.

“Whatever comes next,” indeed, is a question that will hang over the Xcel Energy Center as Republicans meet for four days.

Even if solutions seem elusive, top Republicans find some unity on what has gone wrong. Most start with financial issues. Voters are well aware, they say, that the party that long touted itself as a champion of frugal budgets and limited government has presided over an explosion in federal spending and deficits.

“When it comes to the issue of fiscal responsibility, I'd be the first to admit that I think some of my colleagues lost their way,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. He said GOP lawmakers must resist attractive but costly proposals to solve many of society's problems, even if Democrats portray them as heartless.

“Getting our party to stand on principle is a critical part of what we have to do in order to earn our way back,” Boehner said after he and most other House Republicans opposed a massive housing rescue bill that Congress passed in July with heavy Democratic support. Boehner called it a bailout for agencies, lenders and borrowers who made foolish decisions.

Another well-regarded House Republican, David Dreier of California, agreed that voters have punished his party because they believe it has become profligate and undisciplined. But in a sign of the party's divisions and uncertainty, he joined Bush in supporting the housing bill that Boehner condemned.

“I hated it,” Dreier said. “It was bad, it was terrible.” But, he said, “trying to do something was better than doing nothing.”

Republicans are at a crossroads. The tough choices they face include balancing Dreier's form of political pragmatism against Boehner's appeal for dogged adherence to principles.

“The Republicans' difficulty is they have a small-government philosophy and they use the rhetoric of limited government, but when they become the majority party, it's very difficult to hold to that philosophy,” said Emory University political scientist Merle Black, who has written extensively on the party.

Republicans face philosophical dilemmas elsewhere, too. For years, social conservatives provided a bulwark of votes and energy, driving the party's opposition to abortion, gay marriage and flag desecration. But many moderate voters felt the party went too far, especially when GOP leaders tried to prevent the husband of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state, from allowing her to die in 2005.

“The Republican Party is going to undergo a fairly extended fight for its new identity,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “There are going to be contentions between the social conservatives and the libertarian wings of the party. And between the fiscal conservative and economic growth wings of the party.”

And then there are international issues. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, triggering thousands of casualties and based on unfounded claims of massive Iraqi weapons, probably did more than anything to give Democrats control of the House and Senate in 2006.

Two years later, however, the war has become much more enigmatic and politically puzzling. Some Republicans agree with McCain that a clear U.S. victory is essential, even if it takes several more years. Others want to bring troops home more promptly.

And many simply don't know what to make of Iraq as a political issue. In interviews with an array of prominent Republicans, almost none brought up the war without prompting, and few seemed fully confident that one course of action is wiser than another.

Others are less gloomy. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he thinks the 2006 elections “and the first six months of 2007 may turn out, in retrospect, to be the bottoming-out point of the Republican Party as an institution. The 2006 elections were a tremendous wake-up call.”

The GOP must position itself, he said, as “a broadly center-right party that achieves the goals of the American people” in a time of soaring costs for energy, health care and other needs.

The convention-goers in St. Paul will chant, cheer and make the best of it for four days, embracing a nominee who calls himself an underdog but has a shot at an upset.

In subsequent weeks, and in quieter settings, party leaders will ponder their challenges and their options.

“There's a lot of people kind of groping in the semidarkness,” said Reed, “trying to figure out what a post-Reagan, post-Bush Republican Party looks like.”