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The Republican Meltdown: It's Bad Ideas, Don't Deny It

01/23/2013 02:10 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

Watching the Republican Party flail around as it recovers from its 2012 collapse has elements of tragedy and comedy. After all, it is the party that gave us Abraham Lincoln and Eisenhower, and a modern take on Jefferson's vision of limited government and states rights. But it is also the party of "legitimate rape," Grover Norquist, "self-deportation" and a mean and angry persona defined by Rush Limbaugh. That's the comic part.

Recovery will not be easy, and will likely follow the famous five steps Kubler-Ross describe in the aftermath of a death in the family: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. To move on with your life, you go through each stage in turn.

Republicans are stuck on Stage One, denial, and can't move forward. In fact, they lost because of really bad ideas, which the American people rejected. Rather than confront that reality, all kinds of silly excuses surface, all of which deny the awful truth.

There are the Get-Prettier-Faces people. As Indiana's Mitch Daniels sees it, "the party has a really large and interesting crop of new faces. Ultimately, parties tend to be defined by their most visible personalities." It's bad candidates and bad optics, is all. If only we cleanse the party of people like Missouri's Todd Akin of "legitimate rape" fame, women won't notice that there's only one pro-choice Republican in the Senate. Wrong. It won't fool voters, who eventually pay more attention to ideas than to personalities.

Then there are the Big-Tent people.

"There has to be an acceptance within the party of people who have nonidentical views on every issue," says retiring House Member Steve LaTourette. Retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas says, "It's not so much coming to the middle. It's letting people have various views on personal issues and not requiring complete fealty to all of those issues in a way that will drive people off." Apparently, the existence of a few outliers will distract voters from the fundamental ideology and policies of the party. Again, people will see through it. It just won't work.

Then there are the Tell-Minorities-What-They-Want-To-Hear folks. "We have to be much more granular in our approach to African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians," says RNC Chair Reince Priebus. That seems to mean they have to say different things to different granules of the American electorate, no matter what the party stands for. The best that can be said of that is that it underestimates the intelligence of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Also a no-go.

Daniels, who is a smart man, comes closest when he offers a broad message solution: "Republicans will get their mojo back when they define themselves as the party of economic growth and upward mobility." If all that mattered was a slogan, he's exactly right. The problem is that campaigns pierce the slogans, and look to the policies behind them. Economic growth and upward mobility are good things. But tax cuts for the wealthy, slash-and-burn service cuts, Ayn Rand individualism, and government-as-enemy make prosperity and mobility harder, not easier, and voters just rejected them. A better slogan won't fool anyone if the specific ideas remain the same.

Nothing will work for Republicans until they stop denying what the country told them in November. Supply-side economics with its emphasis on protecting the wealthy "job-creators" hurts the economy. Mindless budget cuts in education and health care hurt average Americans and make upward mobility harder. Demonizing millions of human beings as "illegal aliens" offends the American tradition of welcome and acceptance. Trans-vaginal probes and equating use of contraception with being a "slut" are attacks on human rights. These are bad ideas, and now, they're bad politics. Keep them, and you lose elections.

Think about what could have been if moderate, pro-choice, Massachusetts Mitt Romney had come out of the primaries intact. Obama was politically vulnerable to a moderate challenger with a moderate alternative plan for the economy. But Romney pivoted to the nutty right, and American voters turned their backs.

There's just no easy way for Republicans to recover if they continue to embrace the hard right agenda. There are hints that a few of them get it. The always provocative Newt Gingrich stuck his head out of the foxhole on the issue of gay marriage, hinting at a need for changed views: "Pretending it doesn't exist just means you're going to become irrelevant." But the counter-revolution isn't giving up. As changes in gun, abortion or tax polices are suggested, the corrosive combination of the Tea Party and big, big money are having none of it. "The gloves are off," said Everett Wilkinson of Florida's Tea Party. "We're going to challenge a lot of the G.O.P. going forward." And the Club For Growth, the corporate, supply-side money tree for hard-right primary challengers, remains to the right even of Grover Norquist on budget votes.

Republicans are trapped. If they pretend that tricks and shuffles will solve their problem, they'll continue to lose. If they shift toward the center, their hard-right wing will primary the heretics into oblivion. Far be it from me to help them out, but we do need a two-party system. Denial isn't enough.

It's time to move to Anger-Bargaining-Depression-Acceptance.