Is the Republican Party in peril?
Conservative thinkers and political historians think the GOP could be at the end of its historic 40-year grasp on power.
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"If we don't break out of business as usual in the next five or six months," Gingrich concurred, "we'll simply lose."Skip to next paragraph
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Talk radio and conservative magazines like The National Review and Human Events have brimmed with anguished debates over the meaning of McCain's nomination. McCain backed campaign finance reform and immigration measures loathed by conservatives, voted against Bush tax cuts, and rarely talks about his Christian faith.
The conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has labeled McCain a "liberal" who jeopardizes "the American way of life as we've always known it," according to news accounts. In February, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter told Fox News she'd sooner vote for Hillary Clinton than McCain, whom she branded a "Democrat."
But other conservatives see McCain, however imperfect, as Republicans' best chance in a year when voters across the political spectrum have lost patience with the charged partisan acrimony of the Bush era.
Some 53 percent of likely voters in an ABC News/Washington Post poll this May said they thought Democrats would do the best job "coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years," compared with just 32 percent who thought Republicans would.
But voters seem far more sanguine about McCain himself. Before a modest bounce for Obama following the Democratic convention, recent polls showed them virtually tied.
"No regular Republican would be tying or slightly beating the Democratic candidate in this atmosphere," Gingrich wrote in a May article in Human Events. "It is a sign of how much McCain is a nontraditional Republican that he is sustaining his personal popularity despite his party's collapse."
A key problem for the party, say some conservative critics, is that it has in many ways failed to transcend the debates over gay marriage, abortion, gun rights, and other wedge issues that had helped secure years of GOP victories.
"There was a kind of intellectual fatigue," says Yuval Levin, a former healthcare aide in the Bush White House who is now a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It was dangerous in the sense that not enough of our political leaders were aware there was a problem. You'd ask people why Republicans did badly in 2006, and they'd say, 'Well, there were the corruption scandals, the war.' Conservatives were reluctant to say, 'We need to think hard about what it is we're offering the country to face the challenges of the moment.' "
What those challenges are and how to face them is a pressing issue for conservative thinkers, who have been busy turning out articles, books, and other prescriptions for renewal.