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Those Brand-New Humble Republicans

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Hoping to re-brand their declining party, a group of prominent Republicans recently launched a national "listening tour," presumably as an exercise in market research. They would like to know why voters -- and especially younger voters -- increasingly reject the GOP. They want to "ask the American people what their hopes and dreams are" while engaging in a "wide-open policy debate." And they believe that all Americans deserve "access to high-quality, affordable health care," and "a high-quality education ... not dependent on a parent's income," among other good things.

It all sounds very nice and very humble, as politicians on the edge of utter irrelevance probably should. It almost sounds Democratic. But how sincere is this new humility on the right?

Among the founders of the National Council for a New America, which launched its re-branding effort in a Virginia pizza parlor the other day, there is no doubt a real yearning for a new Republican image. With such members as Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Bobby Jindal, Eric Cantor and Haley Barbour, this is an outfit that represents future ambition as much as ideological commitment. None of these men (and they were all male until they persuaded Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to join) want to see their life's work wasted on a rump partisan remnant. Undoubtedly, they would like to know how to make the Republican Party more appealing.

Yet even in that fundamental endeavor, the Republicans are divided among themselves. While the governors may at least want to look as if they're listening, a far more powerful faction disdains any talk of dialogue as a betrayal of conservative principle. On talk radio, where Rush Limbaugh is the true boss of the Republican Party, "listening" is for wimps. The only way forward is to charge full tilt to the right.

All that Republicans have to do, according to Mr. Limbaugh and his imitators, is to wait for the Obama administration to sink under the weight of its own liberalism, because then disillusioned Americans will return the one true faith of Reaganite conservatism to power. Today, America is ruled by "the most liberal -- far-out radical, liberal president and Democrat Party ever, at least in any of our lifetimes," he says, so "the opportunity to contrast the Republican Party and conservatism with what Obama is doing is great. It's easy. It's profound."

In short, there is no need to re-brand, let alone rethink or reconsider. Forget the listening tour. As Limbaugh put it, "We need a teaching tour."

That kind of arrogance is startling, given the thrashing that Republicans and conservatives continue to suffer in the voting booths, on Capitol Hill and in public-opinion surveys. The defection of Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democrats, in a desperate attempt to save his threatened Pennsylvania seat, was only the latest in a series of severe warnings that the GOP is endangered. In New York's conservative-leaning 20th Congressional District, an unknown Democrat edged out the leader of the State Assembly's Republicans -- after the national party had virtually announced a victory in advance of the special election there.

The frustration of the hardliners is understandable. The mushy, liberal-sounding rhetoric of the governors on the listening tour must be unbearable to true believers among the dittoheads, who want to hear that the president is a communist and that tax cuts, and only tax cuts, are the panacea that will solve every national problem.

So long as that attitude prevails within the Republican Party, the Democrats need only fear apathy. The oldest saying in politics is that you can't beat somebody with nobody -- and in the eternal contest of ideas, you can't beat something with nothing.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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