There is John McCain, the Republicans' failed presidential candidate, as incapable since the election as he was before. There is John Boehner, the party's leader in the House and Ohio's own George Hamilton (the tan, not the affair with his stepmother when he was 12). We now also have Michael "Drill Baby Drill" Steele, the party's inspiration-challenged chairman, who is supposed to lead the GOP back to victory despite his own electoral incompetence. And Eric Cantor, the party's shiny new star who idolizes Newt Gingrich, presumably for shutting down the government in an ego-driven tizzy, not for leaving his cancer-ridden first wife or dumping his second one for a Congressional aide 23 years his junior.
With the kind of inept leadership that would make even Merrill Lynch shudder, the Republican Party has nowhere to go but down, even though, at 19% approval, there is not much of a cushion left. More worrisome for Republicans are their recruiting prospects: if you were, say, a bright young thing in your 20s or 30s, would you rather hitch yourself to Mitch McConnell's star or Barack Obama's? Is there anything that the Republicans have said or done in the past few months that would inspire anyone who has a choice to join their crusade to nowhere? Do you know anyone who proudly supports the GOP? Actually, do you know anyone who understands what the GOP is even about?
And that is precisely the problem: there is so little substance to the Republican Party that, like Citibank, it would wither into oblivion before merging with, say, the Alaska Independence Party, were it not too big to fail. The US electoral system is rigged so that no matter how much it deserves to disappear, the Republican Party will be propped up. It has been so for over 150 years, and is likely to remain so for another 150,000. And so we are stuck with them. This is sad because we do deserve a spirited, intelligent debate about the ominous issues that face the country and the world. Forget even about solutions to the economic crisis or any kind of practical positions on anything of importance, Republicans are unable to begin to articulate the underlying values justifying their existence. And no, "lowering taxes" and "defending traditional marriage" are NOT philosophies. The former is, at best, a means to an end, and the latter a short-term tactic.
Perhaps Republicans were inspired by Obama's enchantingly vague promises of hope and change, not realizing that behind them was a solid set of beliefs in the role of government, and a deep understanding of the American experience. The lack of foundation of the Republican Party is a bigger problem than many of us realize because it means there is no constructive opposition and, thus, little discussion of any value. A number of people are dubious about the success of the stimulus package and would have liked to see arguments from both sides about the consequences of spending close to $1 trillion, or of doing nothing. But with a moribund, intellectually lazy Republican Party, we heard little more than sniping about an earmark here and there, and a fetishistic mantra about lower taxes. What we would like to hear is what role the GOP sees for the government in a crisis of this magnitude, and what role the government could have played to prevent it. It's that simple, and until Republicans can develop coherent answers to such basic questions, they will not regain power.
For eight years, the GOP has been an ugly knot of extreme contradictions, unable to find even the slightest thread of consistency in policies that called for financial rigor but grew public spending to record levels; resisted "nation-building," but drained $25,000 from each American household to attempt to recreate a country 6,000 miles away; wanted the government out of our lives, but proceeded to try to control our conversations, our relationships and our bodies. This utter fiasco is now described by party leaders as a time during which the GOP "lost its way." America is the land of endless redemption, normally a reasonably healthy process, but right now the salvation thing is over the top: from Republican leaders to Wall Street bankers to auto industry executives, everyone seems to realize that they had "lost their way," and that this new consciousness is enough to lead them back to the righteous path. No, it's not: they are all corrupt losers who need to be replaced and sent into internal exile, or worse. It goes without saying that we need new leadership in banking and industry (and perhaps compensation caps will achieve that), but we also need strong, smart, new leadership in the GOP, no matter how much we enjoy the prospect of another Republican electoral disaster in 2010. Without an adequate opposition, there is a noxious lack of rational debate, and endless risks to the democratic process. Also, it's not fun: do we really want to be the basketball team that won 100 to 0?