In sporting terms, the 2008 elections were for Republicans what Howard Cosell might have called a "rebuilding" year: The losing team heads to the locker room after a final dispiriting loss, hoping to get 'em next year.
In politics, getting 'em next year can be a tall order. The playing field shifts: Money flows to the majority party and victories in Congress for the minority party are usually of the moral kind. And, as the election results illustrated, the GOP had a long way to go anyway. States long considered safe Republican territory, such as Indiana and North Carolina, went Democrat for the first time in decades. Democrats smell blood and won't be charitable, even in these traditionally red states.
The Republican vote suffered in demographic after demographic—losing ground with women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Catholics. Minority outreach has never been a specialty of the GOP, but the party's Alfred E. Newman, "What, Me Worry?" attitude became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps that explains—at least partially—why Republicans underperformed with . . . Republicans.
In order to go get 'em next year, the team must develop a new game plan.
Given this scenario, the party must come together and find ways to meet the current challenges—both nationally and politically—while holding fast to conservative principles. They have to regroup, rebrand, and rebuild the party. In a sense, Republicans will need a version of the Council of Trent, the reform-minded 16th Century Ecumenical Council that brought differing factions together to define the beliefs of Catholicism and chart the course the church would follow (and still does).
To do so, the GOP must develop a compelling narrative—with compelling candidates to match—as to why it should be trusted with the task of governing. In short, Republicans must demonstrate a wiliness to become Republican again and redefine what that is by offering a positive, hopeful message for economic growth and a willingness to curtail wasteful spending, and this time, they need to mean it.
Such changes can only come from within the party itself. Republicans would be foolish to base their hopes of retaking power, whether in the Oval Office or on Capitol Hill, on the hope that President-elect Obama and the increased Democratic majorities in Congress overreach and push ultraliberal legislation unacceptable to the American public at large. To be sure, an overconfident Democratic Party could do that, but any strategy for a Republican resurgence that depends solely on the overzealousness of Democrats is doomed to fail.
Moreover, it is essential for Republicans to differentiate between a genuine strategic repositioning and merely shifting tactics. While the party simply should, for example, do a better job of reaching out to minorities or make better use of the Internet, such tactical changes will create no net result if merely presenting the same package with a different ribbon.
As the Republican Party finds itself at this largely self-created crossroad, it does so with people such as Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Eric Cantor, Mitt Romney, and Michael Steele poised to lead. (For those counting, that would be a woman, an Indian-American, the GOP's lone Jewish Congressman, a Mormon, and an African-American former seminarian. That's neither a bad lineup in the Age of Obama nor mere window dressing, either.)
The party will need these and other leaders to begin to reassure the base that the party will not lose its way again, so Republicans, from the bottom up, can begin the task of rebuilding the party and putting it in a position to play offense. And do so sooner rather than later.
After all, the mid-term elections are less than two years away.
Doug Heye is a veteran of political campaigns throughout the nation and has served in leading communications positions in the House, the Senate, and the Bush administration.