A Drubbing the G.O.P. Could Use

As of this moment, this election is shaping up as a thorough beating for the G.O.P. at the presidential and Congressional levels.

The good news for the Republicans, if they are defeated comprehensively this year, is that it will lead to a much-needed overhaul of the party.

The bad news: They could be out in the wilderness for a while. When the G.O.P. lost the House in 1954, for example, it took 40 years for them to win back the chamber—and the basic question of which faces and which issues would define a post-Bush (and post-McCain) Republican Party figures to prompt protracted, and probably contentious, soul-searching within the party.

After an ’08 drubbing, Republicans’ first opportunity to begin clawing back to power would come in the 2010 midterm elections. The last time they entered a midterm campaign without control of the White House and either Congressional chamber, the “Republican revolution” of 1994 was the result. But it’s highly unlikely that, as the minority party, the G.O.P. would be able to whip up a similar political tsunami in 2010.

In ’94, the G.O.P. benefited from a long-overdue partisan realignment in the South, the culmination of the one that L.B.J. famously forecast when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Republicans won House and Senate races across the country, thanks to the unpopularity of Bill Clinton, but their gains were most pronounced in the South, where Clinton’s perceived liberalism caused generations-old loyalties to the Democratic Party—once the party of segregation and states’ rights—to dry up.

Nothing similar seems to be on the horizon now. So even an unpopular President Barack Obama probably wouldn’t suffer the same midterm fallout that Mr. Clinton did. Plus, a strong Democratic tide this November—which now seems likely—figures to produce strong majorities for the party in both chambers (talk of 60 Senate seats is in the air again).

The Republican Party of ’94, especially at the House level, also benefited from a cohesive message. Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, ideological conservatives from the South and the West had steadily replaced old-line Rockefeller Republicans as the party’s lifeblood, and they’d had a decade and a half to develop and perfect their message.

Heading into 2010, though, Congressional Republicans will have to redefine, for themselves and for voters, the very basic question of what conservatism means. Will democratization and interventionism, products of the Bush presidency, remain articles of faith, or will the party revert to its noninterventionist traditions? And will the populist resentment of the financial bailout that we just saw among House Republicans replace the instinctive support for big business that traditionally defined them?

Whatever the answers, new leadership for the House G.O.P. is likely if they suffer deep losses next month. Younger faces like 34-year-old Adam Putnam of Florida and 45-year-old Eric Cantor of Virginia passed on challenging the minority leader, John Boehner, and whip, Roy Blunt, after the 2006 debacle, but it’s doubtful they’d hold back after two straight drubbings. Senate Republicans would probably resist a shake-up—although they may have no choice if the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, loses his seat in Kentucky this year.

Then there’s the presidential race of 2012. The logical front-runner would be Mitt Romney, based on his strong showing in this year’s primaries; the potential breadth of his appeal within the party (and among independents); his money; his executive background; and his communication skills.

But Mr. Romney’s pathological desire to align himself with the prevailing views of his target audience (as opposed to leading them to his views) might leave him with little to say as the party searches for a new identity.

Other Republicans who’d figure to be interested in ’12 include Newt Gingrich, who made noises about running this year but held back (perhaps concluding the nomination would be of little value); Sarah Palin, whose shaky campaign-trail performance would probably render her a niche player with a following on the right, not a unifying leader with a legitimate shot at the nomination; and Mike Huckabee, who played that niche role this year (quite well) and is poised to spend the next few years trying to broaden his appeal beyond religious conservatives.

But none of that group is a presumptive heir, creating the wide-open circumstances for the party to produce a new crop of presidential prospects.

After eight years of George W. Bush, Republicans need to decide who they are and what they stand for. Nothing would jump-start that discussion more effectively than a drubbing next month.

skornacki@observer.com

A Drubbing the G.O.P. Could Use