Lessons from the GOP in Retrograde

In his first three months, Barack Obama has done and said so much that it is not difficult to find more than a few things to disagree with, even if you're not a Somali pirate or a talk show host on Fox News. Choose your aggravation: He's bailed out banks, car manufacturers, and insurance companies. He passed a stimulus bill and budget, both of which will drive up the deficit dramatically. He's for more guns in Afghanistan and fewer on the Mexican border, and he's being so damn nice around the world that he soon may have his own little tin-horn dictator fan club.

His decision to release the torture memos appended to the decision not to pursue prosecution of anyone involved, is only the latest example of how ideologically and politically chafing the president can be, no matter where you are on the political spectrum.

So it would be reasonable to assume given this scenario that the opposition party would have a huge opportunity to challenge the president on his politics and his policies and to make a persuasive case that at least some of Obama's actions are not exactly what the country needs. It would be reasonable to assume that said opposition would get a fair hearing from the American people who, despite what they say, are not really all that eager for change and are suspicious of anyone moving too fast.

But what the last few weeks have revealed about the modern-day Republican Party is that it is not so much a political party as it is a cautionary tale. Now we know exactly what a party looks like when it is out of gas, out of ideas, and flailing desperately for survival. At the same time, the current state of the GOP is an undiluted example of how quickly things can change in politics.

Despite what looks like a wealth of available material -- such as the populist outrage over American International Group, exploding deficits -- Republicans have been unable to do any damage to Obama's public image thus far, and it's not for lack of effort. The president returned from the Caribbean last week to a torrent of right-wing scorn and accusations that he was making America appear weak in the world and enabling our enemies by being too cozy with geopolitical hotheads like Hugo Chavez and Manuel Ortega.

First Newt Gingrich went on the "Today Show" to catalog Obama foreign-policy failings. "I think symbolically -- we've had weakness in the last two weeks with North Korea, we have weakness with Iran, we have bowing to the Saudi king, we have weakness with Hamas, we have weakness with Cuba," the former House speaker declared.

And just to drive home the point, former Vice President Dick Cheney emerged from his secret undisclosed location to warn: "The world outside there, both our friends and our foes, will be quick to take advantage of a situation if they think they're dealing with a weak president or one who is not going to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests."

All week, the echo chamber tried to amplify the putting America at risk message: If only someone were listening. It seems that the only real consequence of the GOP's efforts so far is dwindling support and diminished credibility for the party. Obama's job-approval rating is at 64 percent in the latest Gallup poll, while only 22 percent of people think that the Republican Party care about people like them. For Democrats, that number was 57 percent.

Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign operation of the Senate Republicans, acknowledged his party's troubles this week when he admitted to The Hill newspaper that Republicans are likely to lose at least one more seat in the Senate in 2010, giving Democrats the magical 60 votes they need to end Republican filibusters, and, in practical terms, a free hand to pass any legislation they want. "That's going to be real hard, to be honest with you," Cornyn said about his chances of preventing a 60th Democratic Senate seat. "Everybody who runs could be the potential tipping point to get Democrats to 60. We've not only got to play defense; we've got to claw our way back in 2010. It'll be a huge challenge." It is Cornyn's job to set appropriate expectations -- low ones in this case, since his party's prospects seem so grim in the foreseeable future.

But as pathetic and feckless as they are today, it is worth remembering that as recently as 2004 Republicans looked like they were going to be in control of Washington and the country for the foreseeable future: George Bush won re-election and bragged about how he was going to spend his political capital; Republicans picked up three seats in the House and four seats in the Senate, including the one that had been held by the Democratic leader Tom Daschle. Despair is not too much of a word to describe Democrats'mood back then. Some blamed the gay-marriage debate for the 2004 Democratic losses, but, in truth, Democrats had lost five of the previous seven presidential elections. Among the very few bright spots for them in that election cycle was the open Senate seat they picked up in Illinois, won by a little-known state senator named Barack Obama, who attracted a lot of attention mainly because he would be the only black United States senator.

Thomas Frank, whose book What's The Matter With Kansas seems to best explain the moment, went on television the day after the 2004 election to explain the causes of the Democratic defeat. "The Democratic Party is all over the map, and -- whereas you look at the Republican message. It is simple. It is right to the point." By 2006, Republicans had lost control of both houses of Congress, and the Republican message was all over the place.

So, as much satisfaction as there must be for Democrats to watch as a befuddled and self-immolating GOP puts it dysfunction on display, they should remember that when you run out of ideas or get too smug, the reversals can be quick and crushing.