The Republican Party's Next 5 Nightmares

As Republicans prepare to decide Michael Steele’s fate, the party has no agenda, a Palin management problem and a resurgent president. Matt Latimer on the GOP’s pre-2012 punch list.

01.05.11 10:49 PM ET

As Republicans prepare to decide Michael Steele’s fate, the party has no agenda, a Palin management problem, and a resurgent president. Matt Latimer on the GOP’s pre-2012 punch list.

Next Friday, a week after the swearing-in of a new GOP congressional majority, the Republican National Committee will select a chairman to guide the party through the 2012 elections. At first blush, the lofty post might sound like the political version of a “Yogi Bear” movie: No thinking required. After all, aren’t we fresh off an election where Republicans, despite massive unpopularity, delivered a thrashing so thorough that they won everything but both showcases on The Price Is Right?

Then again, just ask President Bob Dole how quickly political fortunes can turn. If the new GOP chairman is savvy, he or she will see ample reasons to be nervous this year, for signs are aplenty that 2011 might be for the GOP what college football has been for University of Michigan fans: a baffling, dream-crushing headache that makes you wish the whole thing would end early.

Headache #1: The Obama Rebound. When Republicans gaze upon Barack Obama, we know who they see: one-term wonder Jimmy Carter, the in-over-his-head know-it-all who suffered through a bad economy, international turmoil, domestic malaise, and bouts with killer rabbits before the voters sent him home. This time it may not turn out that way.

While Republicans have been choosing color palettes for their plush new offices and dreaming about where they will sit at Mitt Romney’s Cabinet table, their written-off political nemesis has pulled together a string of impressive political victories. Obama lifted the ban on gays in the military when Republicans said it couldn’t happen.  He got a nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia through the Senate, when that was supposed to be tricky. And he extended the Bush tax cuts when Republicans said he was too ideological to make a deal.  The economy is showing signs of life: The Dow is rising; the U.S. automotive industry is reporting robust sales; and Americans are growing more optimistic about their economic futures. Even Obama’s personal approval rating, never as disastrous as advertised, is moving into lukewarm territory, hitting 50 percent in the Gallup poll for the first time since April. (Obama’s predecessor considered the support of half the electorate a rousing mandate.) Depending on which poll one believes, Obama is either tied or well ahead of most of his likely Republican rivals—not bad for a man who is supposedly about to be sent back to Hawaii, Chicago, or wherever it is the Birthers think he came from this week.

Republicans managed to win seats by simply saying “no” to the Democrats. But can they really govern that way?

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Headache #2: Between Barack and a Hard Place. It is easy to see what a smart White House will do this year: Put forward a host of popular-sounding initiatives and shake their heads sadly when Republicans oppose them. From childrens’ health insurance to education spending to environmental protection to regulations on Big Oil, Democrats will come off as Sandra Bullock to the Republicans' Jesse James. Shrewdly Obama will go out of his way to work with the GOP on these initiatives offering all sorts of tempting inducements. But, as Admiral Ackbar might say, "It's a trap!" Each time Republican leaders compromise with the Democrats, the Tea Party will stand ready to blast them for abandoning their principles on spending and smaller government, just as GOP leaders did before. This makes staying on issues offense a top priority for the party. The trouble is that when it comes to issues, the party doesn't appear to have any.

Headache #3: The “What Now” Problem. Ask voters what Republicans stand for and they likely will mention two things: tax relief and war fighting. For the moment at least, the Obama White House has preempted both. In addition to extending the Bush tax cuts, the president has ended the Iraq War and endorsed a military “surge” in Afghanistan, winning praise even from his fiercest critics.

With war and taxes off the table, the GOP faces a far less popular issue agenda for the next two years. Their top priority—the repeal of Obamacare over a certain presidential veto—looks impossible on a good day. Aside from that, what major issue does the GOP tackle next? Immigration reform tore the party in two in the last election. The GOP has shown no capacity for meaningful spending cuts, and no interest whatsoever in trimming one of the government’s biggest spenders: the Pentagon. No effort appears on the horizon to revive the Reagan-era proposal of eliminating Cabinet departments. Few in the GOP, and certainly none in its cautious retread leadership, show any interest in tackling the real fiscal problems facing the country—massive entitlement programs. Without advancing a substantive conservative philosophy, that leaves the Republicans little to do other than manufacture issues—whatever happened to the "ground zero mosque," by the way?—or play defense. Republicans managed to win seats by simply saying “no” to the Democrats. But can they really govern that way?

Headache #4: The Palin Peccadillo.  It is time to face facts.There is only one Republican able to garner international attention with an offhand utterance or sway any political debate with a single posting on Twitter. You betcha: Sarah Palin is now the party’s top spokesperson, whether Washington likes it or not. (They don’t.)  Party leaders have tried ignoring her, belittling her, laughing at her, whispering about her, rolling their eyes, and stomping their feet. It has only made her stronger to her supporters, who think the GOP leadership is a bunch of crusty, out of touch, K Street elitists. (Now that you mention it...) Here’s a thought for the RNC chairman: Why not take Palin seriously? Treat her as a frontrunner for the Republican nomination.  Ask her to serve as spokesman on high-profile issues. Fire anyone found to denigrate her. Let the Alaska governor sink or swim: You don’t have much of a choice anyway.

Headache #5: The Comeback Couple.  Perhaps the most worrisome sign for the GOP is what they’ve let slip right past them. Yes, the political Brangelina of our times, the Clintons, have pulled a fast one on their old rivals yet again. While Republicans have trained all their fire on Barack Obama—plastering his face on magazine covers, accusing him of coddling terrorists, and hating America—they have allowed their far more dexterous political opponents to rebuild their standing. It was not long ago that Bill Clinton was considered a disgraced former president who collected scandals like they were antique cars. Now he’s hailed as a “hero” by Time magazine and hugged by the Bush family as a surrogate son. Meanwhile the once-polarizing Hillary not only survived the WikiLeaks scandal, but beat out Oprah Winfrey to become the most admired woman in the United States. AGAIN. (Oprah, call your agent: Sarah Palin beat you, too.) Now Republicans not only face a reviving Obama in 2012, but the likelihood of running against an even more popular, statesmanlike Hillary in 2016 (if not sooner). That is a prospect that should cause any RNC chairman to reach for the aspirin bottle.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.