CHICAGO -- Reading about the Republican Party as I flew across the country last week was like walking through a graveyard. It was pretty much one journalistic headstone after another. Abandon hope ye who enter these gates.
Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune made good fun of it all, writing:
"Just about everyone agrees that Republicans had better make some big changes: move to the right, move to the center, emphasize social issues, de-emphasize social issues, focus on trying to cut spending, give up trying to cut spending, embrace Sarah Palin or forget Sarah Palin."
Or, as Mort Kondracke, the executive editor of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, put it:
"How can the Republican Party rebound? The first step would be to quit letting Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham set its agenda."
Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal added:
"As George W. Bush's presidency winds down, the Republican Party's greatest problem is that it doesn't appear to be reaching much of anybody who isn't already watching Fox News. Bush leaves behind a party that looks less like a coalition than a clubhouse. ... Until Republicans restore their ability to speak to voters in the Philadelphia suburbs and to their counterparts outside Detroit and Denver or Columbus and Orlando, rousing the faithful on Fox isn't likely to halt the Democratic advance."
In Time magazine, Ramesh Ponnuru said:
"Republicans are feuding in the wake of the November election. But they are not descending into civil war. That would be too tidy. What is unfolding instead is an overlapping series of Republican civil wars, each with its own theme."
Actually, after having some fun at Republican expense, all those wise heads went on to say that one election does not an era make. Each had sensible suggestions and scenarios that will one day bring the Grand Old Party back from the humiliation they so richly deserved for encouraging the ignorant incompetence of George W. Bush for these dreadful eight years.
Chapman, for one, pointed out that four years ago pundits were saying the same things:
"It was the aftermath of the presidential election and everyone was explaining why the losing party lost. It was out of step with ordinary people. Its voters were too old. It was too identified with hot-button issues like abortion. It had a problem with Hispanics, young people and independents. It was increasingly confined to a limited number of states."
But then they were saying that about the Democrats. What goes around comes around.
Kondracke, interestingly, said the best way for Republicans to win back the hearts and minds of millions of Americans was to "actually try to help President-elect Barack Obama succeed in addressing the country's dire problems -- offering better ideas where appropriate and opposing just when necessary, not reflexively."
Brownstein, an articulate advocate of bipartisan government, concluded that the Republicans simply had to drop their Bushy emphasis on running to their own core voters. There just isn't enough of "the base," as Karl Rove named it, to win nationally. The Republicans, he argues, have to become a more diverse party.
Ponnuru said: "Republicans are counting on the natural tides of politics to lift their numbers in Congress in 2010. The Democrats may overreach, or their supporters may get complacent. But to get back in the driver's seat, to become relevant again, Republicans will have to devise an agenda that speaks to a country where more people feel the bite of payroll taxes than income taxes, where health-care costs eat up raises even in good times, where the length of the daily commute is a bigger irritant than are earmarks and where whites are a declining proportion of the electorate."
I have no doubt the Republicans will come back on the tides, as the Democrats did when the Bush undertow swept his party out to sea. But those tides are not natural. National politics in the United States is imprisoned by a two-party system constructed of state election laws which are actually a contract between the Democrats and Republicans to preserve each other -- and keep other parties out. If we had the same election laws in 1856 (the year the Republican Party was born) this election would have been between Democrats and Whigs.
Now, neither party can truly fail or fall away. This was an exciting election which may bring us better governance than we have seen in recent years, but the fact is that American elections are decided by waiting for the other side to screw up so badly voters can't stand it anymore.