John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Wake Up Call

Posted on April 29, 2009
This originally appeared on CNN.com

(CNN) -- The departure of Arlen Specter from the Republican Party puts an exclamation point on a rough first hundred days for the national GOP in the Obama era.

While many conservatives will say good riddance to the Pennsylvania senator, other leaders understand that without the Arlen Specters of the world staying in the Republican fold, the chances of regaining a majority coalition are severely diminished.

Specter would have lost in a Republican primary to Pat Toomey, a firebrand conservative who used to run the anti-tax group Club for Growth. That is why he decided to become a Democrat.

The Club for Growth is best known as the organization that fields ideologically pure nominees who tend to lose general elections. Rather than have a moderate Republican stay in the Senate, Toomey chose to force him out, and now hopes the winds of political fortune blow his way in two years.

It hasn't been a particularly fun time to be a Republican since last November. The party chairman, Michael Steele, has had a rocky start, to stay the least. It was Steele who suggested that perhaps Specter should face a primary test. Now Specter is a Democrat, so that tactic didn't seem to work so well.

Republicans have been marginalized in the Congress, ignored by Democratic leaders to such a point that every one of them voted against the president's stimulus package in the House, with only three defectors in the Senate. They also voted en masse against the president's budget, only to see it pass largely unchanged.

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Worse, they have seen their party ratings sink to anemic levels. It is hard for the GOP to make the case that they are a national party when only 21 percent of the American people choose to identify themselves as Republican, according to the latest polls.

The GOP leaders in Congress, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, have both been effective tactically, trying to counter the Democrats on issues like cap and trade, health care reform, spending and taxes. And there are some signs that the American people would like to see a more effective check on the Obama agenda.

For example, new polls show that a slim majority of Americans believe that because Democrats control Congress, it would be good to have more checks and balances by electing more Republicans.

That being said, Republicans need to go in a new direction strategically should they ever want to have control of the agenda again.

A fundamental debate that is roiling the party hinges on one key question: Should they come up with a different strategic game plan or should they try to revive a strategy that has worked for 40 years but is now showing its age?

Since 1966, in the aftermath of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program being enacted into law, and after the Watts riots, the Republican Party has employed a winning, if controversial, election strategy: Bring together southern whites, Midwest conservatives, western libertarians, blue-collar Catholics and New England capitalists in a coalition. Focus on anti-communism for the conservatives, the abortion issue for the Catholics, the civil rights backlash for the southerners, and concern about taxes and spending on welfare programs -- and a strong national defense -- for all of the groups.

This coalition served the Republicans fairly well. They controlled the White House for 28 out of the 40 years, and while they didn't dominate the Congress to the same extent, they did have some success in both the House and the Senate.

But like all coalitions, this conservative coalition has started to fray. Communism has been vanquished, the sexual revolution is over, a fairly high percentage of Americans don't pay federal income taxes, and the old divisions between white and black are starting to disappear.

New England has largely been lost to the GOP, the Democrats have made remarkable strides in the west, and many Catholic voters have swung back to their old party, partly a reaction to evangelical takeover of the GOP.

Some luminaries on the right are hoping to bring back the old coalition. They see Barack Obama as the sum of their worst fears. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity like to call the president and Nancy Pelosi and their policies "socialist." They beat the drum on gay marriage, hoping that this will give the right a needed shot in the arm (and not recognizing that getting gays to marry is actually a victory against promiscuity and a victory for family values in a strange way).

An unspoken part of this strategy has always been to play on the resentments of the largely white and conservative base toward other people, be they communists, liberals, blacks, immigrants, gays or atheists.

While it may have worked in the past, there is no evidence that this strategy is working today or is going to work tomorrow. Changing demographics and changing attitudes make it necessary for the GOP to change the target of its ire.

The country is getting less white every day, so that means the Republicans need to attract more African-Americans, more Asians and more Hispanics. It also needs to do better with the female vote, especially female small business owners, the fastest growing part of the new economy

I believe that instead of targeting people, the new Republican strategy should be to target government, and more specifically, bloated, unaccountable, imperious, out-of-touch, ineffective and corrupt government.

Anger against incompetent government spans all classes, all races and all genders.

The much-maligned tea parties should give the Republicans an inspiration to rework both its philosophy and its coalition. The resentment that inspired the thousands of people to come out and protest was not tax related. It was not only the bailouts either.

It was years of frustration that comes from incompetent and unresponsive government, which has failed to deliver basic services, like a sound public education. That frustration finally boiled over in a series of mostly spontaneous protests aimed at the government and its new leader, President Obama.

Republicans should seize on that populist outrage and drive a new reform agenda, based on the principles of transparency, accountability, competence and thrift.

They should hold President Obama's feet to the fire when it comes to spending. They should demand greater accountability from the federal government and the unions that represent the bureaucrats. They should push hard for greater transparency for TARP funding, earmarks, Medicare and host of other spending programs.

They should also go out to the American people to get their input. Find out what most Americans really expect from the government, and find out what they are willing to pay. Take suggestions from the people in series of national town hall meetings, turn them into policies and then present them to the president.

It is easy for pundits to write the old story of the great divide between moderates and conservatives in the GOP. But it is more compelling to see this fight as the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. For Republicans, the road back to the majority will mean finding a new strategy, one based on reforming a bloated and wasteful government into a smaller, smarter government that meets the needs of people.