Dawn of Obama era forces Republicans to take stock

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Republicans who just four years ago boasted of nearing "permanent majority rule" now watch a dynamic leader move into the White House at the helm of a resurgent Democratic Party with new footholds in longtime Republican bastions.

For Republican activists across the country, Barack Obama's inauguration as the first black president produces dread, bewilderment and grudging admiration.

"I'm in a deep depression," said Josephine Schmidt, a mother of three and a small-business owner in Atascadero, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in California's Central Valley.

"Obama is going to lead this country on a path we've never seen before, the path of socialism," Schmidt said. "It's going to take years and years for us to recover, if we ever do."

Schmidt and her husband, Donald, whose company makes vanilla extract, already are laying off workers in anticipation of the tax increases, health-care mandates and burdensome regulations that they're certain Obama will enact.

In Florida, where Obama became the first Democrat to win more than half the presidential vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the prognosis is less grim.

"I felt that Obama just did not have enough experience, but he's surprised me," said Jeffrey Gordon, a lifelong Republican retiree in Coral Springs, north of Miami. "I've been by and large impressed by him."

He and other Republicans like Obama's Cabinet picks — especially Hillary Clinton as secretary of state — and they're pleased by the Illinois Democrat's pledge to wrap $300 billion in tax cuts into his economic stimulus plan.

"He's inheriting a horrific environment," Gordon said. "He's got a rough two years ahead of him, but so far, without him even having taken the oath, I give him high marks."

In Ohio, another red state that turned blue for Obama, Josh Keezer is struck by the president-elect's energy and sense of command.

"He's not even president yet, but he's been all over the place," said Keezer, who lives outside Toledo and teaches English to immigrants. "He's been at the White House, and he's met with Congress. He's building his experience now. He's about the best nominee the Democrats have had in quite a few years. Hopefully, his learning curve won't be as big as I thought it would be."

Obama, 47, defeated Sen. John McCain of Arizona on Nov. 4 by 53-46 percent. Obama carried nine states that President George W. Bush won in 2004, while McCain failed to turn any states that had gone for Democratic nominee John Kerry.

Obama's emphatic victory has left Republicans searching for answers.

"It's not the easiest thing in the world right now to be a Republican," former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, running to lead the national party, said in a debate Jan. 5. "Republicans are scratching their heads and saying, 'Who are we and what do we stand for?' "

During the National Press Club debate, all six candidates for Republican National Committee chairman agreed that their party must become more tolerant of different viewpoints. Yet none of them strayed from core Republican stances against abortion, taxes and gun controls, and for school choice and a robust national defense.

Obama's rout of McCain among young people — two-thirds of voters younger than 30 backed him — prompted the RNC candidates to say that the party needs fresh faces.

Republican loyalists around the country echo that sentiment.

"We need to try to get some different blood in there, not the old school," said Pam Runac, a Pittsburgh native who lives in Pawleys Island, S.C. "We need to get some younger, more forward-thinking Republicans."

However, Republican leaders and activists alike repeatedly cited the late Ronald Reagan — the oldest man to serve as president — as the paragon of true Republican principles.

Asked to name the best Republican president, all six would-be RNC chairmen chose Reagan.

None named Abraham Lincoln, Obama's political idol and the man whom historians and other Americans most often rate the No. 1 president.

The six RNC chair candidates also agreed that Obama had out-organized, out-planned, out-YouTubed and just plain outflanked McCain in the campaign.

After Bush's re-election four years ago, his political guru, Karl ,Rove crowed that the Republican Party stood on the cusp of becoming the nation's "permanent majority party."

Four years later, Rove is in political exile, and his slash-and-burn campaign practices have been discredited.

When the RNC ran a Web ad last month tying Obama to indicted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized it as "the sort of negative, attack politics that the voters rejected" in the last two national elections.

For Gingrich, who led the 1994 "Republican revolution," which produced the first Republican majority in the House of Representatives in a half-century, Obama's election was an emphatic verdict on Republican Party leaders' recent performance in Congress and in the White House.

"Republicans have to come to grips with the fact that we had failed in both the Congress and the executive branch," Gingrich told Fox News.

Obama's successful "50 state" strategy of campaigning hard in all corners of the country has compelled Republicans to challenge Rove's focus on energizing the party's base in the South, the Great Plains and other Republican-friendly regions.

"We must abandon the 28-state strategy that has been in play for the last few presidential election cycles," said former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who's among the six men who are vying to become the party's chairman in voting Jan. 28 by its 168 national committee members.

In California, Schmidt said it was foolish for Republican White House candidates to concede the country's largest state to Democrats.

"We've had Republican senators and Republican governors," she said. "We went for Reagan. Just to give it up is a huge mistake."

She and other Republican activists cited excessive federal spending as their biggest disappointment with Bush and the Republican lawmakers who controlled Congress until January 2007.

However, political pressures from the economic crisis, plus expanded Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, may leave Republican members powerless to block or limit an Obama stimulus bill of $700 billion or more.

"Such a meltdown in the economy makes it easier for them to cheer for Obama to do well, because everyone is affected," said Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Obama is an unusual man for an unusual time. It's made the honeymoon period stronger than usual at the beginning of an administration."

In Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, Bill Skipper runs an international business-development firm.

Skipper, a Florence, S.C., native, is a Republican, and his wife, Elena Leventis Skipper, is a Democrat. They're opening their home to friends and relatives who'll visit for Obama's inauguration.

"She's extremely excited, and quite frankly, so am I," Skipper said. "It's a new day. Once you get past the election, you've got to do what's right for the country. I'm comfortable with President-elect Obama's ability to lead us."

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