After two weeks of schmoozing in Miami bars and on the last days of the campaign trail with deflated Republicans, our correspondent dishes on exactly how low morale has sunk.
Don't ask, "Whither the GOP?" Ask, "Where are they not?" Post-election saw Republicans out en masse if not in force or in charge: on talk shows, cruises, at conferences, and more. And they were ready to talk. Here are some insights I've gathered from my talks in hotel bars, airport tarmacs, and anonymous chat rooms. Not really that last one.
1. Sarah Palin's performance in the waning days of the campaign—and especially at the Republican Governors Association conference—should put to rest the myth that her rhetorical skills are good or that they are even hers. (The base has McCain speechwriter Matthew Scully to thank for them.) As one Republican operative put it in an email to me shortly after Palin wrapped up at the RGA, "Who wrote that? Todd?" The lack of warmth other governors seemed to feel for Palin was just as surprising. Mostly confined to under the surface, the annoyance briefly crackled into view at the end of her bizarre presser, when Texas Governor Rick Perry overruled Palin's decision to end the event by calling on CNN's Dana Bash himself. Other than that, the governors and attendees kept criticism of Palin—which, to be fair, might stem somewhat from jealousy—off the record. One elected official, asked if he might have conducted himself differently had he gotten the VP pick, simply rolled his eyes, adding, sarcastically: "Oh, maybe."
While the party as a whole has yet to come up with a coherent argument for why they lost, speakers at the conference were almost unanimous in blaming "the culture of Washington" for corrupting Republican representatives.
2. Republicans like guns. At RGA's closing event—winkingly called "The State Dinner"—Perry, stepping down as the group leader, got a shotgun. As did other departing governors. Because that's what Republicans giving up power need: phallic symbols to take home and caress and remind them of what it was like when people did what they said. Bush will need several. Perhaps this is what accounts for reports of a national uptick in gun sales—it certainly makes more sense than the paranoid delusion that Obama will take them away.
3. The divide within the Republican Party is not so much "social conservatives" versus "social moderates" or even "big government conservatives" versus "fiscal conservatives." It is state-level Republicans versus federal officials. While the party as a whole has yet to come up with a coherent argument for why they lost, speakers at the conference were almost unanimous in blaming "the culture of Washington" for corrupting Republican representatives. Perry told the crowd that the behavior of "D.C. types" (who stayed unnamed most of the time) had caused voters to "lose confidence" in Republicans. This argument was often contrasted to the relative success GOP governors had on Election Day—no governor running for re-election lost. But congressional Republicans are quick to point out that the demands of a state-level job are dramatically different than theirs. "None of them had to vote on the war," pointed out one consultant at the conference, who has worked primarily on federal races. "You can avoid a lot of social [policy] issues." And it's true that the brightest stars of the Republican governors' field, including Tim Pawlenty and Charlie Crist, have earned their reputations by staying focused on what one might call the "deliverables" of state government: making sure residents get the services they need, whether it's education, energy, or a driver's license. (South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford got a round of applause when it was announced he had helped cut wait times at state DMVs from an average of 66 minutes to 15.)
4. Young Republicans are eager for a changing of the guard. Republicans under 40, steeled for a loss for months, breathed a quiet sigh of relief when McCain's immediate post-election actions (sending his security detail home, immediately disbanding his informal brain trust) seemed to indicate that he had no interest in being the public face of the party going forward. (One might argue that he had little interest in being the public face of the party as its nominee.) The prospect of new faces to fill that roll has generated whatever excitement there is on the R side of the aisle. "It's kind of a blank slate," said one conference attendee. "We could do anything." In fact, this observer believes the party has to groom new personalities BEFORE it gets to the business of figuring out its new message or its new agenda: "How do you get people to listen to a message if you don't have a messenger?" As for who the new messengers might be, one consultant at the conference, Patrick Ruffini, emphasized quantity over quality: "We need five or six Sarah Palins and five or six Bobby Jindals," he said, explaining: "The media is going to tear them down as fast as we can build them up. If we send enough of them out, some will be left standing" by 2012.
5. It doesn't matter if the race for 2012 has actually started or not, reporters will cover events like this as if it has. And you thought 2008 was a long election cycle! Tying up their laces, if not actually mounting the starting blocks are Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN). I took them through some warm-up laps with a couple of quick interviews.