Republicans, at Crossroads, Must Find Political Compass or Go the Way of the Whigs

The GOP needs to find the old political compass or fade like the party it replaced.

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Jamie Stiehm, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is at work on a biography of the 19th-century Quaker abolitionist and women's rights leader Lucretia Coffin Mott.

It's very simple: Good old-fashioned Republicans must come to the aid of the party or it will go the way of the Whigs, a major political party from whose own ashes it rose. 

Whigs were a force in antebellum America, the party of Lincoln years before the man from Illinois was the first Republican presidential standard-bearer in 1860. The Republican Party became dominant as the national stage was set for the Civil War, finding its feet during the fractious 1850s when rage over slavery, on both sides, almost tore the nation apart. 

Whigs, even with famed statesmen and orators such as Sens. Daniel Webster and  "Missouri Compromiser" Henry Clay, fell to pieces when they could not hold together over the great debate of the day. 

In New England, "Conscience Whigs" split from "Cotton Whigs." Then Whigs were struck by a flash of political lightning in the form of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which threatened to spread slavery westward. Internally divided, the Whigs faded to black when blood was spilled in Kansas. 

Now, a century and a half later, new Democratic convert Arlen Specter, the shrewdest opportunist in the Senate, has caught the way the wind's blowing. His defection from Republican ranks shall be seen as a harbinger, much as Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner's 1859 beating at the hands of a South Carolina congressman on the Senate floor was a precursor to the Civil War. 

The GOP is foundering and in danger of fading fast. Former vice president Dick Cheney, loaded for bear, and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, are driving the party so hard to the right that cracks are forming at the middle, where few voices of mainstream appeal—like the moderate governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, and Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe—remain.

And rather than eloquent statesmen, the party is left with Cheney, Limbaugh, and party Chairman Michael Steele.

Cheney's clearly not the go-to guy to bring fresh blood under the "big tent," which Snowe warns is more like an umbrella these days. The only elections Cheney won were two decades ago as the only congressman from Wyoming, not a diverse or vote-rich state. Yet he told CBS News's Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation that it was nice to know people still "loved" him as he took the lead in criticizing President Obama and defending the administration on whose watch the massive failure of September 11 happened. 

Limbaugh's mocking diatribes are so much a part of the American discourse—or discoarse—that we forget at base he's just a demagogue. 

Steele, when not apologizing to Limbaugh for an initial lack of genuflection, has shown no talent for bringing in new recruits, whether hip-hop or country club types. Facing voters alone on the ballot, he has been elected only to the Maryland State House; he lost a race for the Senate. He makes foolish claims when he's not talking like a Valley Girl about the Academy Awards. But then, the Republican National Committee voted in Steele only as a reaction to Obama's victory, as if to signal that the African-American Steele showed they were cool and tolerant, too. 

To hear former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Washington earlier this week, when he declared that being a "citizen of the world" is a stunningly dangerous thing, makes one wonder if the party is a chorus of old ideas and mean spirits. Gingrich has lost some charm over the years since he was last elected to a Georgia congressional district in the 1990s; so much for his mainstream appeal. The question really is why congressional Republicans warmly cheered his inflammatory remark just as President Obama is trying to right our battered ship of state in the world community with a new zeitgeist. Then again, they have made no pretense of working with the new president.

Then there's the matter of  who's "conservative." True conservatives burnish institutions and protect civic customs and legal traditions, deploring and guarding against disruptive change—a far cry from the Republican Party character in the eight years before and after George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000.