For right now, GOP trapped in a snake pit

Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2009

Six months into the Obama administration, Republicans appear like a den of snakes, hissing about Sarah Palin's future, Mark Sanford's dalliance and Barack Obama's agenda.

But not all is lost. Obama is setting up the issue that could help return them to power in six to eight years. His charisma alone will be hard to beat in 2012, but his swelling of the federal debt eventually could return the country to the GOP.

So there's a way out, but first, we must understand the elements of today's GOP snake pit:

E-mail conservatives: This is where you'll find many devoted social conservatives, who still take their cues from Rush Limbaugh and the e-mail blasts from GOP headquarters and forward the links. They pounce on anyone in the blogosphere who deviates from the conservative line. These newly wired-up netrooters are the latest manifestation of the GOP base.

Elected conservatives: The congressional backbenchers might be as conservative as the wired base, but they also know they need votes to pass bills.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, is a good example. Deeply conservative on issues like energy economics, he'll lead the opposition to many Democratic energy ideas. But he also has partnered with Democrat John Dingell of Michigan to pass proposals.

It will be interesting to see if any elected conservatives peel off and join Democrats on health care or, later, immigration reform.

Fiscal conservatives: Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Dallas and Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake typify the inheritors of the GOP's Robert Taft wing. Like the late Ohio Republican, their first question is: How much does that cost?

That's a good impulse, and, if they're smart, they won't drive away moderate Republicans equally passionate about excessive spending. If they form a broader network, fiscal conservatives could lead the party out of their snake pit, especially if Obama doesn't control the debt.

Social moderates: You find these GOP outliers in statehouses like California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger governs, and in key positions in the Senate, where both parties court centrists like Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

Libertarian thinkers: Brainy grads from prestigious schools gather to form ideas in places like the Cato Institute and the Federalist Society. Their concepts can be too theoretical, but their proposals - and staffers - give the GOP intellectual energy.

The easy way would be for Republicans to unite behind a charismatic figure, but that person probably won't emerge by 2012.

That's not all bad, because they need time to work out a strategy. Obama gives them the core by proving so willing to run up the debt, which is headed to its highest ratio of GDP since World War II. In six years or so, many more Americans will wonder how they got saddled with such a burden.

Yet the GOP will need more than fiscal responsibility. Even the flinty Taft couldn't get to the White House in the 1950s on prudence.

Here are two more issues they should consider:

Champion public schools as the great assimilators: Public schools are a primary way immigrants assimilate into America. George W. Bush understood this and focused like mad on education. By building on his record, Republicans could show they care about Latinos.

Reclaim national parks as a GOP issue: My family and I just spent two weeks bouncing around national parks in New Mexico and Colorado. The more I thought about these vast lands, the more I thought Republicans should reclaim their roots. Teddy Roosevelt was the ultimate parks president, and by embracing these needs, the GOP could show that enjoyment of public lands and conservation are consistent with conservative values.

Republicans will need other issues, of course, and plenty of time. Don't expect the snake pit to calm down soon.

• William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.



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