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Freedom Fries, Take Two

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I'm impressed.

I thought that the Republican Party had hit its high-water mark for absurdity when several governors, led by the 2012 presidential aspirant Rick Perry of Texas, threatened secession.

But last week, Perry's potential rival, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the Republican Governors' Association chairman, put Perry's secession talk to shame. Barbour launched a new anti-government campaign in the spirit of Guy Fawkes -- the 17th- century terrorist who tried to assassinate King James I and blow up the Houses of Parliament.

The irony that this comes from the governor of one of the states most dependent on federal funding seems lost on the GOP.

I can't make heads or tails of the advice that Republican consultants must be giving their gubernatorial candidates.

In times like these, when voters are tired of partisan rhetoric that outstrips results, governors look like the perfect antidote. They aren't from Washington; they have credibility on jobs and the economy, and they focus on results instead of process.

Yet, rather than take advantage of this, GOP gubernatorial candidates have become the shrillest voices on the right.

Scott McInnis (Colo.) wants to abolish the Colorado Department of Education. John Kasich (Ohio) wants to get rid of Ohio's income tax - though he has no clue how to make up the enormous revenue (40 percent of the state budget) this tax generates.

Former Rep. Bill McCollum, the state attorney general who is running in Florida, is spearheading a campaign to repeal health care reform that is already backfiring. Some people just can't seem to get Washington out of their heads.

Perhaps because so many have their eyes on the 2012 prize, Republican governors and candidates are increasingly talking past independents. Instead, they are targeting their far-right base, using language that would make Ronald Reagan blush.

Long gone are the days of "morning in America." The message of today's Republicans is one of anger, cynicism and doubt about our nation's abilities.

While this works the tea partiers into a lather, the persuadable independents are left empty-handed. This is not hope, optimism or promise. This is "freedom fries" all over again.

Common sense says that at some point - probably after the GOP has settled on its 2012 nominee -- this silliness will stop and rational thought will return to fashion on the other side.

But until that day comes, Democrats ought to take advantage of the gaping hole the Republicans have left by ignoring moderates, independents and everyone else who expects more from their government.

Indeed, this is the DGA game plan. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, our chairman, likes to say that no party has a monopoly on good ideas.

So our candidates are taking a page from the Reagan playbook. In 1982, when things looked a lot like they do today, Reagan managed to hold his own in the midterm elections by focusing on jobs and the middle class, laying out a vision marked by courage and optimism.

Over the next six months, you will hear Democratic governors and candidates pounding away on this message.

The contrast is simply too powerful to pass up.

Where Republicans want to move backward, Democrats want to move forward. Where Republican governors are cynical, Democratic governors and candidates offer a vision of prosperity and economic growth.

Where Republicans say "we can't," Democrats are still the ones who say "yes, we can."

It's not my place to judge the other side's strategy. After all, we were goose-egged in 2009. But the increasing radicalization of the GOP gives me optimism about our party's gubernatorial prospects this year.

The path to success does not run through secession or the symbolic embrace of a 17th-century domestic terrorist. Now, more than ever, Americans want a government that's competent, serious and, above all, optimistic.

The Republican presidential primary is driving party members who should be a voice of moderation right into the tea party ditch.

Whether or not the Guy Fawkes imagery blows up in the RGA's face, the GOP has done us an enormous favor by leaving the road to common sense and rationality wide open.

Look for the Democrats, at least on the state level, to be on a six-month tour.

This column originally appeared in Politico.

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