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The Grand Old Party needs a reboot

Opinion Column

The political party of Abraham Lincoln is in trouble, threatened with irrelevance, even extinction. Its weaknesses are legion.

Its congressional leaders are quite unpopular, polls show. So are the party’s positions. Its beliefs — animosity to same-sex marriage, hostility toward saner gun laws, rejection of higher taxes for the wealthy, suspicion of popular entitlement programs — are not shared by the majority of Americans.

It is bereft of ideas, committed to formulas that don’t work (cut taxes, no matter the economic conditions) and to a rejection of reasoned analysis (climate change is a hoax). It has alienated the nation’s voters of color, who represent growing blocs of influence.

As if those deficiencies were not enough, the party is falling into a civil war, its internal feuds increasingly loud and obstreperous. The only thing that still unites all parts of the Republican Party is an irrational hatred of President Barack Obama.

That’s not good for the country. To meet the challenges of the 21st century, the United States needs at least two competitive political parties dedicated to solving problems. Their solutions will differ, of course, but each should offer them. At the moment, the Republicans have no solutions — to anything.

It hasn’t been so long ago, a couple of decades back, that the GOP prided itself on being the party of ideas. Its wealthy funders had created a network of research institutions to funnel their policies into Congress and state legislatures. There’s little doubt that those wealthy donors were looking to protect their own interests by emphasizing low taxes and less government regulation.

But it’s also true that GOP thinkers came up with some good ideas. The Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, widely known as Obamacare, was one of them. The earned income tax credit, which reduces the federal income tax burden of lower-earning families to zero or less, was also born of conservative thinking. Unfortunately, the current GOP has either renounced or distanced itself from both of those programs.

Some of the party’s more practical members have begun to plead with their fellow partisans to change course. Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, has openly fretted about the GOP’s future. Maine senator Susan Collins has expressed frustration with her party.

And last week (May 26), Bob Dole, well-respected former senator and onetime presidential nominee, gave GOP leaders a bit of advice: “I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs’ until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas.”

Here’s hoping Republican strategists do as Dole suggested — figuratively, anyway. The GOP needs to reinvent itself as a party dedicated to policies that offer solutions to current problems. That’s what Democratic leaders did back in the mid-1980s, when they finally came to terms with their growing obsolescence.

The Democratic Party was in a similar slough then. It was riven with competing factions, saddled with unpopular positions and tainted by the perception that it coddled criminals and deadbeats. It was only when the Democratic Leadership Council assiduously reinvented the party, with Bill Clinton as its standard-bearer, that it emerged from the political wilderness. And it emerged with ideas, such as a new fiscal responsibility, that gave it gravitas.

At the moment, Republicans are still at war with ideas — at least those that grow from a rational grasp of facts. There is no way, for example, to cut the deficit without raising taxes, but GOP congressional leaders insist on a voodoo math that defies that. They are obsessed with their belief that Obama has “covered up” his responsibility in the deaths of four Americans at a diplomatic post in Benghazi, though countless hearings have found no evidence of any such cover-up. They insist that Obamacare will kill jobs, though they present no evidence.

In a larger sense, the GOP is at war with reality — a reality of fewer white voters, myriad family structures and challenges that demand scientific solutions. Until it makes peace with reality, it cannot re-create itself as a winning party.

Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.