After big losses, GOP looks to rebuild public trust

Leaders say they’ll have to examine their party’s ‘brand’ and consider new faces.

Ed Reinke/AP
Time to regroup: Sen. Mitch McConnell, a minority leader in the Senate, says the United States is still a “center-right” country. He and others in the GOP are counting on that to rebuild the party following significant congressional losses – not to mention the presidency – in the last two elections.

After a drubbing at the hands of voters in the last two election cycles, Republicans are regrouping around two ways out of the wilderness.

One is to find a new face for the party – presidential contender Mitt Romney, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are often cited – and wait for the Democrats to “overreach.”

The other is to publicly overhaul the family brand. That means vetting the mistakes of GOP years in power – corruption, big government, and pork-barrel projects – and restoring public trust.

“What the election told us is that the American people agree with our ideas, they just don’t trust us,” says Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, who was renamed chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, a caucus of conservative senators, on Thursday.

“[President-elect] Obama ran on tax cuts, energy independence, curbing wasteful spending. He even said he would order an audit of all federal agencies to cut out waste. The reason we are losing is that we are not acting like Republicans,” he adds. “The Senate is ruled by a few big spenders, and we’ve allowed big spenders to rule and ruin our party.”

So far, there’s little taste among congressional Republicans for circular firing squads. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio expect to keep their jobs as Republican leaders of the Senate and House, respectively.

GOP tally from Election Day

One reason is that the losses in Campaign 2008, while significant, weren’t as massive as expected. To date, Republicans have lost six seats in the Senate and 19 in the House. Even with recounts pending, Democrats aren’t likely to reach the 60-vote threshold to ending a filibuster – the tool that allows minority party members to derail legislation or nominations they oppose. [Editors note: This paragraph was corrected to say "nominations."]

Another hopeful sign is that the US is still a fundamentally center-right nation, GOP leaders say. President-elect Obama ran on cutting taxes for most Americans and on hope, but he won’t be able to govern on those principles and satisfy pent-up demands for spending.

“America remains a center-right country,” wrote Mr. Boehner in a letter to House GOP colleagues on Nov. 5. “Democrats should not make the mistake of viewing Tuesday’s results as a repudiation of conservatism or a validation of big government. Neither should we.”

The way forward is for Republicans to learn how to win on issues, one by one, and win back public trust, he says.

An example of how a minority can still win on issues is last summer’s protest over energy policy, launched by House conservative Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Tom Price and Lynn Westmoreland, both of Georgia. Instead of returning to their districts for August recess, Republicans held daily protests on a darkened House floor over the need to lift a ban on offshore drilling.

“While Democrats were on vacations and book tours, we stayed in town demanding a vote, defying expectations and putting the country’s interests ahead of our own,” Boehner wrote. “We showed Americans we stand with them.”

Bipartisanship on select issues?

On the Senate side, GOP leader McConnell is signaling the new administration that he will cooperate with them on bipartisan issues, such as implementing the president-elect’s campaign promises to cut taxes, increase energy security, reduce spending and ease “the burden of an immense and growing national debt.”

“On these, and other bipartisan issues, he will find cooperation in the Senate,” McConnell said in a statement on Nov. 5.

With enough votes to mount a filibuster, Republicans can block legislation that falls outside the scope of those issues.

But many conservative activists predict that stepping up the fight as a minority won’t be enough to bring the party back into power.

“You’re likely to have a rejection of a lot of the establishment leaders that dominate things today within the Republican Party and articulate conservatives stepping forward,” says David Keene, who chairs the American Conservative Union, the largest grass-roots conservative lobby group.

“The fact is the Democrats won this election because Republicans managed in the last few years to screw up their performance,” he adds. When Democrats assume they have a mandate to launch big spending programs, they will “overreach” and wind up in the same position.

But there’s a growing sense among some party backbenchers that the party needs more than to wait for Democrats to slip.

After the 1964 defeat of GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Republicans used their years in the wilderness to sharpen a message.

“We built over a period from 1964 to 1980 the intellectual case against the welfare state that the Democratic Party had become, and for 25 years this has been an effective agenda for the Republicans,” says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama.

“But as we’ve been in office for a long time, we’ve got senators who think they’re getting elected by short-term political maneuvering, such as bringing home benefits for their state. That would have been fine in 1994, but you’ve got to be more sophisticated today and be more sensitive to what people’s real concerns are,” he adds.

The need isn’t just a new face for the Republican Party, he says. It’s for deeper ideas and a sharper way to convey them.

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