Teddy Roosevelt Republicans
Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — With President Bush likely to go down in history as one of our worst presidents, the Republican brand has been severely damaged. Between a costly and unpopular war, the mortgage meltdown, skyrocketing gasoline prices, a collapsing dollar, and a trail of government incompetency and corruption, the Democrats are poised to make big gains in Congress regardless of which party wins the White House.
Just how dire the situation is became clear in three recent special elections, all won by Democrats in what are considered Republican strongholds. The first to fall was Illinois Rep. Denny Hastert’s seat, a blow not only because of the change in party but because the long-serving Hastert led the House as speaker before the Democrats won control in the 2006 election. The symbolism of the loss sent shudders throughout the GOP.
Then came two seats in the Deep South, one in Louisiana and one in Mississippi, districts long considered safe Republican. Both fell to Democrats, setting off a round of recriminations and self-doubt on Capitol Hill. Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, a former chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, announced earlier this year he won’t be running for reelection, cutting short one of the most promising careers on Capitol Hill. His frustration with his party was captured in a memo he had written to party leaders saying that if the Republican brand was dog food, it would be pulled from the shelf.
Davis no doubt hopes that the strong metaphor will prompt his party to do some necessary soul-searching, and to go beyond the slogan the Republican leadership recently released, “Change you deserve.” Party leaders were embarrassed to discover that the slogan they unveiled is identical to the marketing message of an anti-depressant. Davis is a moderate, pro-choice Republican, and he’s urging his party to re-think the reflexive conservatism that defined the GOP in recent years, and to come up with an agenda more in tune with where the country is.
Democrats began their re-evaluation after George McGovern’s defeat in 1972, and then in 1984, after Walter Mondale’s 49-state loss to Ronald Reagan, Democrats who believed the party had moved too far left to win nationally formed the Democratic Leadership Conference, a centrist group largely responsible for pushing Bill Clinton’s candidacy to the fore.
Davis didn’t put it in so many words, but the logical extension of his complaints about his party would suggest an equivalent response by the Republicans, a re-branding of the party that would have relevance to today’s voters.
Moderate Republicans were once thought of as Rockefeller Republicans, but Nelson Rockefeller was too liberal for the party then, and anything linked to him today is considered way too liberal, and outdated. A more relevant Republican hero and the only modern Republican whose face is on Mount Rushmore is Teddy Roosevelt. His fighting spirit and progressive views as a Republican and as a third party “Bull Moose” could provide a touchstone for a party in search of an identity that is not anchored in angry, right-wing conservatism.
Davis has watched his state of Virginia, once a reliably red and Republican state, drift toward the Democrats. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., thinks he has a chance to win Virginia in November, and the state hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential contest since going for LBJ in 1964. Now it has a Democratic governor, a popular Democratic senator in Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran and war hero, and prospects are good that former Governor Mark Warner will win the other Senate seat for the Democrats.
There are signs that this could be a tidal wave year for Democrats in the same way that 1980 and 1994 were for Republicans. If there’s a silver lining for the GOP, it’s that things have to get worse before they get better.
Published in The Messenger 5.28.08