Friday, October 24, 2008

Grand Old Pummeling

Even if John McCain manages to pull this one out in a squeaker, that won't be enough to save the Michigan Republican Party.

That's because McCain's circus-like pullout from the Mitten State earlier this month instantly translated into a double-digit lead for Barack Obama. No one, even Mac's most diehard supporters, thinks a comeback here is possible, unless Obama does a suicidal Detroit campaign swing with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Kwame Kilpatrick and Willie Horton at his side.

McCain has choked off all the oxygen to down-ballot races here. Gone are the money, organization and rock star visits by Sarah Palin that state and local Republicans were desperately counting on to help them withstand the swelling Democratic tide.

Republicans thought they could finally pin the economy on Gov. Jennifer Granholm, but the Wall Street meltdown gave the guv a fresh coat of Teflon. It's a perfect storm and the GOP mood has swung from full-scale panic to unshakable depression.

Right now, the conservative estimate on state House losses is four. The doomsday scenario is 12, which would put the lower chamber at a lopsided 70-40 split in the Dems' favor.

The educational boards will swing even more Democratic, and many county, city and township bodies will be bluer after Nov. 4.

When a party fails as spectacularly as the Republicans are poised to, it's time for some soul-searching - which in politics usually means backstabbing and bloodbaths.

The wily maverick - who most of the blood-red party brass never cared much for anyway - will certainly garner his share of the blame. But John McCain won't be here to kick around.

The Michigan GOP's problems, of course, started long before this ridiculously long campaign. There are two crises facing Republicans post-Nov. 4: Who will lead them and where are they going?

In the short-term, this means yet another civil war between factions led by party chair Saul Anuzis and former National Committeeman Chuck Yob.

It's hard to say how that will turn out, but it will be a strain for Saul to shake off two disastrous election cycles in a row. Even though as a former Mitt Romney guy, he never had the inside track with the McCain clan and received no notice the nominee was skeddadling from Michigan.

There are many Republicans who wish a plague on both their houses, slamming Anuzis for meddling in policy matters like last year's budget crisis and Yob for having a political track record akin to perennial losers like my Chicago Cubs.

They just want a party that works. This is uncomfortable ground for people accustomed to the order, fraternalism and seniority that has had a vice grip on the GOP. Now they seem as splintered as Democrats, which have long operated like a loud, dysfunctional family.

The Republican Party here and nationally is fissuring amidst competing, incongruous interests brought together under Reagan - the country club set, moderates, the religious right, disgruntled blue collar Democrats, Wall Street, small business, rural dwellers and fiscal conservatives.

The split crystallized under the McCain-Palin ticket. There was little fire from the base or talk radio for McCain, who could never be forgiven for calling fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance." No matter how far to the right he veered, it was never good enough.

Palin was a godsend to the party faithful, but she turned off moderate McCainiacs, as well as a fatal number of independents. The result is no one's truly happy with the GOP ticket, as opposed to the Dems, who are both inspired by Obama and giddy to turn the page on George Bush.

Michigan Republicans have a better chance than their national counterparts to get it together. Granholm still remains unpopular, which bodes well for the 2010 governor's race, and the next wave of term-limited House retirements is set to sock Democrats far harder than the GOP. The party should pick up another Senate seat if state Sen. Mark Schauer captures the 7th District congressional slot.

But they'll need organization and a message. What's clear is that the party orthodoxy on abortion and taxes hasn't worked. Social issues have driven moderates from the party in droves. And it seems increasingly likely that no legislator will lose his seat for hiking taxes last year.

This is not 1980. That's something Republicans have to get over, stat. The get-government-off-my-back ethos has withered. Now it's bring back big government if you can save my 401(k).

That doesn't mean that conservatism is dead, nor should it be. But politics is never static, while parties tend to be. The Democrats finally had to become more pragmatic and rejigger themselves after their thumpings in the '80s and '90s and the day of reckoning has come for the GOP. The party needs fresh ideas on the fiscal crisis, health care and foreign policy.

Gerald Ford, Bill Milliken and Dwight Eisenhower offer obvious role models of centrist conservatism spliced with good government. And there was something safely reassuring about these leaders during troubled times.

All I know is if a modern Milliken gave it a stab in 2010, he'd have my vote in a heartbeat.

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