The House GOP Blame Game That Just Won’t Let Up

by Stuart Rothenberg May 22, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

There is panic in the Republican streets these days. GOP elected officials and strategists ranging from Reps. Tom Davis (Va.) and Tom Cole (Okla.) to former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Karl Rove all think their party is in free fall and needs to change. This is news? The polls have shown this for more than two years.

Welcome to another round of Republican finger-pointing and blame assigning. If you aren’t getting enough of it now, don’t worry. It will continue at least until and probably through November.

Who exactly is at fault for recent Republican House losses? House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), many believe, has the long knives out for National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Cole. Others think Boehner and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) bear much of the blame.

In fact, Republican losses in 2006, in recent House specials and undoubtedly in 2008, cannot be blamed primarily on Cole or Boehner or Blunt or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) or National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.). I’m not saying they haven’t made mistakes. But they aren’t the real problem.

President Bush is the main culprit, but the entire party bears some responsibility.

Political parties do well when their leaders are popular and Americans are satisfied and optimistic. That’s not where we are today, and even though Democrats control Congress, it’s the president’s party that gets a disproportionate part of the blame for bad news.

But let’s not pull any punches about the state of the GOP: You can’t nominate mediocre candidates or candidates from divided state or local parties, have Members of Congress admitting to affairs that produced children, have Members’ homes and offices raided by the FBI, have Members go to jail, have Members picked up in airport bathrooms and have an unpopular president pursuing an unpopular war during a time of increased economic anxiety and still expect to be popular — or to turn things around.

Yes, I know, the Democrats have had their share of embarrassments. For every Republican embarrassment (New York Rep. Vito Fossella and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter), there is a Democratic one (former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann). Republicans have former Reps. Duke Cunningham (Calif.) and Bob Ney (Ohio) and Rep. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), and Democrats have former Congressman Frank Ballance (N.C.) and Rep. William Jefferson (La.).

Still, it seems to me, and to most people I talk with, that far more Republicans are involved in these problems and investigations of late, especially involving Washington, D.C., figures. Democrats haven’t had anything close to resembling the Jack Abramoff fiasco, for example, during the past few years.

Even state scandals have damaged the GOP’s national reputation more than the Democratic Party’s. In 2006, the Ohio Republican Party seemed to self-destruct, and national Republicans paid a price. This year it could be the Alaska GOP.

So far, state Democratic scandals in places such as Illinois and New Jersey haven’t spilled over into federal races or even fundamentally improved short-term Republican prospects.

I have to chuckle when I see Gingrich lecturing Congressional Republicans that it’s time for them to regroup.

In a Human Events article, the former Speaker offers “nine acts of real change” that he says could “restore the GOP brand.” The list includes overhauling the census and cutting its budget, declaring English the official language of government and reminding Americans “that judges matter.” Oh brother.

Of course the GOP brand is damaged and House Republicans need to offer an appealing, positive agenda and a new aggressiveness in promoting it. Tom Davis certainly is correct about that.

But the primary problem for Congressional Republicans is that the nation is in the middle of a presidential campaign and the GOP’s standing is so low that it now doesn’t have the credibility to rebrand itself unilaterally between now and November. Any rebranding has to be done in connection with Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) message and agenda.

House Republicans are irrelevant right now, so relying on them to seize the mantle of “change” and “restore the GOP brand” is asking for the impossible.

Sometimes you have to take your medicine. For the Republican Party, that undoubtedly means another spanking at the polls (though it may not be as bad as some now think is inevitable). A McCain victory would help ease the pain of more defeats at the House and Senate level, and it would shatter Democratic dreams of complete control of the government. But even a McCain victory wouldn’t solve all of the party’s problems.

Anyone who has lived through wave years can remember the intraparty fights that they created. For Democrats, it often was the Democratic Leadership Council and organized labor arguing who was at fault and what the party needed to do.

So Congressional Republicans will have to suck it up, find opportunities to criticize Democrats and rally around McCain, hoping that he can change the discussion and offer a broadly acceptable party agenda. Republicans who don’t latch onto at least some of McCain’s reformist message are making a huge mistake.

If the party is skunked in the fall, which is very possible, then Congressional Republicans will be able to take the next step and rebuild from the ground, articulating their own change agenda and counterpunching against Democratic moves. That’s the way it works. Welcome to reality.