Republicans need fresh ideas, not a savior
The GOP could rebuild by grooming conceptual thinkers in foreign policy.
Oakton, Va. — The Republican Party is in a free fall because as the song says, it's been "looking for love in all the wrong places."
The United States needs an intelligent, loyal party in opposition. Without it, democracy atrophies. Yet the GOP seems unable to fulfill this crucial role. Its years in the majority made it susceptible to arrogance and greed, and today it's a party depleted of the fresh ideas, civility, and wisdom it desperately needs for a revival. After Sen. Arlen Specter's defection, it also risks being depleted of the strength to stop any Democratic legislation.
In such a state, it's tempting to look for a single character to resurrect the party's fortunes. But Republicans don't need a savior as much as they need a cash crop of ideas. The GOP was born of a truly virtuous idea – the abolition of human slavery – and it was repeatedly reborn over the years out of new visions.
Innovative solutions and seriousness of purpose should be the keynotes of its renewal. Instead, its leading figures act frivolously.
Texas is one of the party's few strongholds. Yet instead of hearing about fresh policy innovations there, we hear Republican Gov. Rick Perry complaining about the stimulus package and talking about his state's right to secede. The party of Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan doesn't need whiners when times get tough.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin could win a charm contest, but she almost surely diminished John McCain's prospects of winning the presidential election. Her grasp of public policy is embarrassingly modest for someone of such ambition.
Perhaps the most formidable potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012 is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He seems determined to run: He's writing book after book, popping up on TV talk shows, and making the rounds of fundraising dinners.
Gingrich is erudite, perhaps the best Republican mind since President Richard Nixon. But after three marriages and an extramarital affair, his personal character is a political drag. He's tried to put the issue behind him, appearing on Dr. James Dobson's radio show in 2007 to apologize for being unfaithful. And this spring, he sought a fresh religious start by converting to Roman Catholicism.
In this permissive age, his greatest liability may be his divisiveness. The late President Gerald Ford once told me he thought Gingrich betrayed the party with an abrasive leadership style as speaker. Of Gingrich and House Republican leaders, he said: "Those guys are out only for themselves. They don't care a damn for the country."
Still, after eight years of George W. Bush, the GOP could use a dose of Gingrich's erudition. The problem, however, is "how to hide it from voters." Long-ago GOP standard-bearer Thomas Dewey was a baritone of operatic quality, but party bosses hid that from voters, fearing it would not play well. The GOP base loves to rail against "elites," but in doing so it risks becoming the anti-intellectual party.
Republicans need ideas beyond "Bomb, bomb Iran" and "Drill, baby, drill." "Cut taxes" is a mindless mantra in an age of soaring national debt.
They also need a healthy dose of self-reflection. Many of them pine for the Reagan era, but are the doctrines that defined that time still right for today? Can some of them admit that the massive deregulation Reagan spawned helped trigger today's economic implosion?
The party could rebuild by embracing its traditional strength: foreign policy. The ideas of Nixon, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft defined a generation. Conceptual thinkers are again needed. Republicans need to stop their chest-thumping as a substitute for foreign policy. Even Reagan, whom no conservative would consider "soft," opted for no significant military response when 220 Marines were killed in the 1983 terrorist bombing in Beirut, which intelligence reports subsequently suggested had roots in Syria and Iran.
President Eisenhower exemplifies Republican statesmanship. In the late 1950s, strategists said the US should prepare for limited nuclear warfare against the Soviets. But Ike rejected the idea because "he understood better than his advisers what war is really like" wrote John Lewis Gaddis in "The Cold War."
Today's Republicans have their share of talent. Mitch Daniels, now in his second term as governor of Indiana, has built an impressive record. So has former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens. Though he stumbled in his prime-time address in February, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is a former Rhodes scholar and healthcare wonk who offers much needed diversity.
Again, though, Republicans shouldn't fall into the trap of pinning their hopes on a "star." If they can build an intelligent agenda that meets the needs of a rapidly changing world, they will bounce back. If not, they risk even further irrelevance.
Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.