The Republican Party Looks to Repair Its Image

Michael Steele and the rest of the GOP are in a fix in the Obama era.

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In the Obama era, the Republicans are in a fix. At the congressional level, they are going back to basics, serving notice that they will continue to oppose the president on matters of conservative orthodoxy, from his vast spending plans to his goal of expanding the power of the federal government. But at the same time, after losses in the elections of 2006 and 2008, they are trying to put a fresher, more appealing face on the GOP.

Their troubled brand, which one former adviser to presidential candidate John McCain called "the southern white man's party," prompted Republican leaders to choose Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, to deliver the GOP response to President Obama's prime-time address this week. Jindal, who at 37 is one of the nation's youngest governors, is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2012. Jindal said that the GOP had lost its way by straying from the ideals of limited government and fiscal discipline. He said that the answer to the nation's economic problems isn't to give more power and money to the federal government. "The way to lead," he argued, "is by empowering you, the American people, because we believe that Americans can do anything." He said the Democratic majority in Congress has been "irresponsible" in passing legislation that spends "money we do not have on things we do not need." Jindal's speech was panned by media critics, but his views are widely shared by Republicans in the House and Senate and emphasized by the new party chairman.

"We spent the last two election cycles in the political desert, where we wandered aimlessly from message to message," says Michael Steele, the head of the Republican National Committee. "We forgot those core ideals" that had led to success in the past, such as fiscal discipline, shrinking the size of government, and personal responsibility. "We walked away from the trust of the American people," he says. Steele pledged to not back down from confronting Obama and the Democrats on "basic principles."

The latest area of contention is Obama's budget proposal, especially his plan to limit the deductions that the wealthy can itemize on their tax returns in order to help pay for his overhaul of the healthcare system. During the campaign, Obama also pledged to end the income-tax cuts for the upper brackets enacted under President George W. Bush. Many conservatives call this "class warfare." Obama also wants to use revenue from his cap-and-trade environmental program, in which companies would buy permits in order to exceed pollution limits, to finance a tax break for low- and middle-income people.

All this is likely to push many Republicans into battle against what they say are Democratic schemes for ever-bigger government, higher taxes, and more efforts by Washington to redistribute wealth.

That battle won't come too soon for the hosts of conservative talk radio shows, still one of the most powerful shapers of opinion on the right. Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative radio, announced recently that he hoped Obama would fail as president because it would torpedo the resurgence of liberalism. He also told his millions of listeners that Obama is "obviously more frightened of me than he is of Mitch McConnell [the GOP leader in the Senate]. He's more frightened of me than he is of, say, John Boehner [the House GOP leader], which doesn't say much about our party."

Few Republicans in Washington disagreed with him, at least not publicly. And one who did, Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, backed off quickly when his office was inundated with phone calls and E-mails from Limbaugh fans. At first, Gingrey defended McConnell and Boehner and said Limbaugh was off base, but he ended up calling Limbaugh's show to apologize for what he said were "stupid comments."

But even if they shy away from Limbaugh's bluntness, his goal of making sharp distinctions appears to be increasingly shared by GOP leaders in Washington. To that end, House GOP leaders this week asked Democrats in the House to consider imposing a freeze on current federal spending. And they served notice that they will oppose key provisions of Obama's proposed budget for 2010, which he just released Thursday. This kind of naysaying, while popular in many conservative districts, is causing the GOP problems in other quarters. It even resulted in a lampooning on NBC's Satur day Night Live in early February when a skit made fun of GOP intransigence.