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GOP seeks silver linings amid a strengthening blamestorm

Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008

When a politician plays the Adolf Hitler card, you know he's lost the argument.

Georgia Rep. Paul Broun also lost credibility when he played the H-card clumsily and outrageously against President-elect Barack Obama almost a week after Election Day.

Broun's cheap shot, from which he later kinda sorta backpedaled, symbolizes the brainless attack-dog politics that have left leading Republicans befuddled and pointing fingers at each other as they try to recover from big election day losses.

Broun was responding in an interview to Obama's suggestion during his campaign that the nation's foreign service could be expanded with a new reserve defense corps to help with reconstruction in places such as Iraq. The concept has supporters in both parties, including the Bush administration. But Broun saw only brownshirts.

"That's exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany, and it's exactly what the Soviet Union did," the Athens, Ga., Republican snapped. He also reminded us that "Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany," although he added, "I'm not comparing him to Adolf Hitler." Right. Perish the thought.

Now hear this: When you use Hitler as a metaphor for someone who is nothing like Hitler, you only flatter Hitler - and degrade yourself.

Yet in this day of wretched rhetorical excess on talk radio, cable television and blogs, it is not surprising that Broun would think that the best offense is overkill.

Today's conservative leaders are back where they were after Sen. Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964. They're frantically looking for somebody to blame - including, of course, the media.

Fortunately, cooler heads at the Republican Governors Conference this past week in Miami were more interested in a brainstorm, not just a blamestorm. That helps to explain why governors have a better track record of producing White House winners from their ranks than member of Congress do.

A lot of attention went to new, smart, young up-and-comers like Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, South Carolina's Mark Sanford, Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty and, of course, Alaska's Sarah Palin. The fact that some polls show Palin was only exceeded by President Bush in dragging down Sen. John McCain's turnout is a sign of how badly the Republican brand is damaged.

Known for helping his state rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, the young Indian-American Jindal has been called the "Republican Barack Obama." He may yet be. But first, his party needs to figure out what it's about - and how it lost touch with voters.

Fiscal conservatives are blaming President Bush's deficit spending. Country club conservatives blame Joe the Plumber's pals, the blue-collar Reagan Democrats who returned home in large numbers to put Obama over the top.

Social conservatives are reminding their peers that despite big Democratic victories, this is a "center-right" nation, as they try to prevent the GOP from swinging back to the middle. Some right-wing critics who denounced Obama as a "socialist" before the election, now accuse him of using conservative arguments to win by "running to the center."

A "center-right nation?" Don't kid yourself. We're a pendulum nation. History shows that we swing right, then left, then back again. We swung to the right when Democrats lost touch with Middle America. We swung back to the right when too many Republicans got too full of themselves.

We are conservatives when we have something to conserve, liberal when the system breaks down - which pretty well describes the Bush years in a nutshell. The Iraq war went sour. The Afghanistan war re-erupted. Hurricane Katrina exposed leadership ineptitude. Congressional Republicans were plagued with individual scandals. The recent global financial crisis hit the Republican brand like an anchor thrown on board a sinking ship.

If Democrats overreach, Republicans could have a resurgence with the mid-term elections in 2010 as they did in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. President-elect Obama's appointment of Chicago Rep. Rahm Emanuel appears to be intended to help keep the Democratic Congress on a more prudent track.

Until then, Republicans need to rediscover what used to make their party a winner with moderates. I suggest that they begin, as they seek to run the government, by remembering that government is not the enemy. It only seems like the enemy when the people who run it lose touch with the people who elected them.

• Contact Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.



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