For Hill Republicans, an Opportunity to Rebrand Their Party

Stuart Rothenberg May 14, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

Republicans have begun their “rebranding” campaign by holding a town hall in Northern Virginia. Those efforts surely are necessary, since the party’s standing in polls continues to erode. But any success from the new approach is likely to proceed at a snail’s pace.

It’s difficult to change opinions that have gelled over the past few years, and GOP efforts to reach voters town hall by town hall are likely to be overshadowed by major fights on Capitol Hill, over everything from health care to spending to Supreme Court nominations.

The retirement of Justice David Souter is a case in point, and the fight over his replacement presents Republicans with an interesting conundrum.

Do Capitol Hill Republicans dig in for an Alamo-like stand, opposing President Barack Obama’s nominee right to the bitter end, or do they adopt a more cautious style in evaluating what almost certainly will be a nominee who will likely mirror Souter’s views and merely reconstitute the court’s four-person liberal bloc that already includes Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens?

The problem is more complicated, of course, than merely choosing one strategy. The GOP is divided, and there surely will be a wide variety of opinions of exactly how to respond to the president’s eventual selection.

Some movement conservatives already have begun to gather ammunition for a bloody, protracted fight with the White House, no matter who the president selects, and you can be sure that bookers on the nation’s cable “news” networks will be drawn to the most vociferous and confrontational, not necessarily the most thoughtful.

In other words, Republicans won’t automatically be able to choose their own spokesmen or limit the visibility of party bomb throwers as the debate over Obama’s selection proceeds.

Still, Republican leaders can’t ignore the fact that how party leaders respond to the president’s nominee will affect how the public views the GOP, and that the heavy media coverage over the selection and the Republican response to it will do more to reinforce or change public perceptions of the GOP than will a dozen town halls across the country.

The political realities of Washington, D.C., are clear: Democrats now hold 59 Senate seats and are likely to gain a 60th sometime in the next few months. Republican opposition to a Supreme Court nominee is fruitless unless at least one Democratic Senator opposes the nomination and would side with all 40 Republicans to block a vote.

A truly controversial selection might well give Republicans enough ammunition to delay or derail a nomination, but Obama is more likely to select a nominee who, while liberal, is not an easy target for Republicans. At least that is what Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) concluded after a conversation with the president during which Obama said he would not nominate a “bomb thrower.”

While the Republican knee-jerk reaction to the president’s selection is to fight, wiser heads might opt for a different response.

Democrats have been reasonably successful portraying the GOP as the “party of no.” While Republicans may have had good reasons for opposing the president’s stimulus bill and his budget, that’s not the point. Their opposition has allowed Democrats to portray them as heavily partisan, and voters don’t like the idea that partisanship is driving the decisions of elected officials.

April’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found 55 percent of respondents saying that Congressional Republicans have been “too stubborn” in dealing with Obama, while only 25 percent said that he has been too stubborn when dealing with them. A clear plurality of those polled, 48 percent, said that Obama has “struck the right balance” in dealing with Congressional Republicans.

Expressions of concern about the Obama selection, followed by announcements by a series of key Republican Senators that they had decided to give the president every benefit of the doubt and would vote to confirm the selection might well be the best strategy for GOP lawmakers, who could both lay out their differences with the nominee (and by implication the president), yet ultimately stress their willingness to accept the president’s choice.

Accepting the inevitable is an old political trick. Republicans could look as if they were reaching out to the president even though they knew that they had few alternatives.

Of course, some on the right who relish confrontation and believe that only drawing a bright line between Obama and the GOP will create the kind of sharp contrast that will benefit conservatives and the Republican Party will be apoplectic at the thought that Republicans would accept a Supreme Court nominee without having first caused a bloodbath.

They will use the nomination as an opportunity to raise money and energize their troops. And they will receive some attention from the national media, as they both rail against Obama and Republicans who they see as insufficiently committed to the battle. But in a battle like this, not everyone will be happy.

Republican elected officials, strategists and activists would do well to look at the Supreme Court vacancy and Obama’s selection as an opportunity to start to rebrand the party — for the tenor and tone of their reaction will do more to define the GOP than will all those town hall meetings.