10/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Off the Shelf

What can be done to salvage the Republican Party? Even Gustav is more of a haunted reminder of Katrina than a do-over. It's presidential candidate openly scorns the party's corruption. Sarah Palin was elevated to cater to the evangelical base, but her primary asset is that she challenged the cronyism of the party's leaders in Alaska. It's leaders obsess about what they call the decline of its "brand," in itself a mark of a party invested more in marketing than in principle. Rep. Tom Davis, former head of its congressional campaign committee, concludes that, "If we were a dog food, they'd take us off the shelf."

Few will admit this in Minneapolis, of course. Gustav has helped the made-for-TV show, giving the failed president and vice-president a reason to stay out of town. 10 incumbent Republican Senators already had decided that absence was the better part of valor.

And the reality is even worse. Democrats will win stronger majorities in both House and Senate. 28 Republican legislators have taken a look at the race and decided they'd rather quit than fight. Corporate money is buying into Democrats, picking the stock hat is on the rise. Democratic registration is up nationally, while Republican registration is down over a million since 2004. The Millennium generation - larger even than the boomers - are voting Democratic in overwhelming numbers. The Republican southern strategy has created a regional, whites only party - with even that southern bastion is now being challenged. Democratic control of state houses and legislatures is on the rise. On issue after issue - from the Iraq War to Katrina, from contraception to consumer protection, from health care to fair trade - a growing majority of Americans have turned against Republican positions. The new center is progressive, not conservative.

So what can be done? In the best tradition of circular firing squads, Republicans are sniping at one another for the debacle. The fundamentalists blame the neo cons; the country clubbers deride the evangelicals; the corporate core scorns the supply-siders. And each of them is justified, for every strand of the Republican party contributed to conservative misrule. The neo-cons led us into the debacle that is Iraq, while shredding the Constitution. The evangelicals shocked America with the Schaivo grandstanding, and the efforts to enforce morality through radical right judges. The supply-siders really did practice "voodoo economics." And the corporate cronies descended into corruption and plunder shocking even by Washington standards.

How do Republicans recover? Rove's theory of imitating McKinley and ushering in a new Gilded Age exploded with the financial crisis. McCain's wistful invocation of Teddy Roosevelt is a far remove from what the modern Republican party could stomach. The bright young conservative, Ross Douthaut, suggests that Republicans imitate Democrats, and compete for the votes of workers on the basis of bread and butter issues. The old guard, like former Rep.Mickey Edwards, calls for a return to limited government and the Constitution. Grover Norquist enforces allegiance to starving government. Virtually all invoke the sainted memory of Ronald Reagan as lodestone for their recovery, without being able to agree on what Reagan represents.

This debate shouldn't be left to those who have helped drive the Republican Party to the verge of bankruptcy. Democracy requires at least two parties to thrive. If the Republican Party disintegrates, it will only have to be reinvented. So perhaps it would be good to invite the readers of the Huffington Post to join this discussion.

What can be done to save this party? How can Republicans - having failed so ignominiously at home and abroad over the past eight years - recover?

To start this discussion, let me offer my own modest suggestion - a return not to Ronald Reagan who helped start them down the road to bankruptcy, but to Ike, the Republican Party of Dwight David Eisenhower. Eisenhower reflected the common sense, country club values of a Republican Party that represented Main Street. He insisted on fiscal discipline, and was willing to raise taxes if necessary, even as he championed smaller government. To balance the budget, he put a lid on military spending, letting the services fight among themselves on how to divide the kitty. "We -- you and I, and our government," he warned, "must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."

As a former commander of US forces in World War II, he was sensibly cautious about using military force abroad, preferring diplomacy to war. He brought the Korean War to a close. He scorned those who wanted a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and was skeptical of the schemes of the neo-cons of his day eager to rollback the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.

Ike understood the dangers of crony capitalism that might plunder Washington. He warned us to "guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. He reminded Americans that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

He preached balance - in government, in society, in corporations. In his day, executives sought to expand their companies, not dismember them or ship them abroad. They shared the benefits of rising productivity with their workers. They didn't not wage jihad against union organizers.

As a lifelong military man, Ike didn't loathe government. Just as he understood its limits, he understood its purposes. So he accepted the core New Deal reforms - Social Security, financial regulation, labor unions. He understood the need for a modern infrastructure, funding the interstate highways that provided a strong stimulus to a mobile America and a more efficient economy.

In public at least, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower seemed to personify the small town morality of America. The 1950s was a time of a growing middle class, moving to the suburbs, raising families. Sure it was boring, suffocating, and hypocritical, and helped spark the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But Ike's Republican Party came closer to reflecting the values it preached than today's rack and ruin Right.

No need to romanticize Eisenhower. He let McCarthy spread hate and division far longer than necessary. While he appointed Warren and Brennan and Stewart to the Supreme Court, he was complacent about segregation. And he presided over a CIA that was running covert operations across the developing world. But he was a sensible, relatively moderate conservative who provided adult supervision for the ideologues on the Right.

Still, small government, fiscal discipline, a lid on military adventure and spending, investment in vital infrastructure, acceptance of Social Security, Medicare, financial regulation - this might go a long way toward allowing today's Republicans to recover from the lacerations left by the New Right marauders, and begin once more to offer America a sensible alternative, not an extremist nightmare.

But please, join the conversation. Can this party be saved? And if so, how?