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The GOP’s New Colors

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The brio of the Rovester is impressive as always, especially in the face of the ample evidence that undercuts his every assertion. Though support for the stimulus did indeed slip during its gestation, it still wound up over 50 percent. The price to Obama is undetectable: His approval ratings remain sky-high. Meanwhile, according to polling by Research 2000, the public’s view of congressional Democrats is on the (albeit slight) rise. But its opinion of the congressional GOP is plunging rapidly from an already dismal baseline: Since the start of the year, its net favorable/unfavorable ratings have fallen from -40 to -52; those of House Republican leader John Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, have each dropped by eleven points.

Like their congressional brethren, Jindal and Steele were loud opponents of the stimulus. In the case of the Republican Party’s new chief, that opposition took the form of arguments that weren’t just specious but spectacularly moronic: “In the history of mankind and womankind,” Steele declared, “government—federal, state, or local—has never created one job.” (In fact, about 15 percent of the labor force is employed by the government.) Jindal, for his part, first decried the stimulus on the grounds that it would balloon the federal deficit, then said he might turn down part or all of the roughly $4 billion slated to come Louisiana’s way because of unspecified “strings” that might be attached. Jindal’s motivations are open to question—all other governors adopting his position are, like him, mulling a White House bid in 2012—but his position isn’t insane on its face. But for a governor facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall for next year, the sheer irresponsibility of it is fairly staggering.

The stimulus debate is history now, of course, so maybe it would be better to judge Steele and Jindal on the basis of their visions of how to resurrect their party. For Steele, apparently, that means focusing less on policy than on outreach—though the signals he’s sent so far in both areas are less than encouraging. Within days of winning the chairman’s post, he quietly scrapped an ambitious plan to create an in-house RNC think tank known as the Center for Republican Renewal, the purpose of which, according to an internal party memo, was “to develop principled solutions rather than falling back on ideology alone.” Instead, as Steele told the Washington Times, he intends to launch an “off the hook” rebranding effort to appeal to young black and Hispanic voters in “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.” “We need to uptick our image with everyone,” he continued, “including one-armed midgets.”

Progress, ho! (Or should I say, Progress, yo!)

Jindal is orders of magnitude more estimable than Steele. Though he’s been in office just over a year, he’s been swift off the mark: handling Hurricane Gustav smoothly, passing an impressive package of ethics reforms, overhauling the state’s worker-training program, and introducing a Medicaid-reform plan that’s garnered respectful notices from progressive health-care wonks such as Ezra Klein. Last year, when Jindal was informed by John McCain’s campaign that he was being considered to be McCain’s running mate, the governor pulled his name from contention, citing his desire to serve out his term—while his allies leaked word that the real reason was his fear of being tangled up in a plainly doomstruck campaign. No dummy, he.

Yet, in other respects, Jindal is a standard-issue conservative. His economic views are highly orthodox: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. And his social views are hard right in extreme. Raised in a Hindu household, he converted to Catholicism in his teens and embraced a particularly strict version of the creed. He is anti-abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or when the health of the mother is at stake and signed a bill allowing the teaching of intelligent design in Louisiana’s public schools. (“If I wanted the aesthetics without the inconvenient morality,” he once wrote, “I could become Episcopalian.”) No wonder no less than Rush Limbaugh hails him as “the next Ronald Reagan.”

Maybe it’s too much to expect that Jindal, at his tender age, would have a fully-formed, mold-breaking, conservatism-recasting and party-reinvigorating schema at the ready. And maybe it’s too early to judge Steele’s efforts to expand the appeal of the GOP geographically and demographically. Maybe both of them will develop into big-time forces in the cause of Republican reformation. (Though in Steele’s case, all of these maybes are so gargantuan you’d need a crane to lift them.)

For the moment, however, what they look likely mainly are window dressing for a party whose decline continues to accelerate at a head-snapping pace. More to the point, they look like answers to the wrong question. As the Obama epoch kicks into gear, the GOP has demonstrated no small degree of vigor, discipline, and oppositional force. What it hasn’t displayed is any capacity or inclination to advance a novel and coherent set of policies for a country deep in crisis. Without such a set of new ideas, the party will continue to flounder. And all the new faces in the world—even those that could have been lifted straight from an old Benetton ad—won’t make the picture any prettier.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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