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The Other 100 Days

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I will not speak with disrespect of the Republican Party. I always speak with respect of the past. ~~ Woodrow Wilson

President Obama marked the 100th day of his term with a prime time press conference on Wednesday night, during which he highlighted a few key accomplishments while reminding the American people that he has quite a lot of crazy crap to deal with. A swine flu outbreak tickling the pandemic edge, an economy still hemorrhaging jobs and money, a ballooning deficit, bad banks, a new eruption of violence in Iraq, an ongoing war in Afghanistan, a looming war and a shaky government in Pakistan, and a bunch of very strange people waving tea bags and yelling about Lord only knows what, because they sure didn't. I got this, Obama seemed to be saying, but damn.

The "100 Days" benchmark is a relic from the first trimester of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal reform push, and is for the most part a meaningless milestone used primarily by news media types to fill air time and column inches. Still, the Obama administration can lay claim to a series of important victories, with more still to come if he keeps the wind at his back. The poll numbers are universally positive, and the American people seem willing so far to be patient and give the process time to play out.

For the Republican Party, however, the last 100 days have been something out of a Roger Corman flick: blood on the walls, body parts everywhere, lots of screaming and no plot to speak of. The last 30 months have brought a litany of disasters for the GOP - electoral wipeouts in '06 and '08, a poisoned party "brand," mass voter defections to the Democrats, the total repudiation of their whole ideological slate, and an ex-president about as popular as the mumps - culminating with a run of incidents since the inauguration so unutterably bad as to beggar likeness.

Let's review.

Most recently, of course, was the high-profile departure of Arlen Specter from the Republican caucus. The arrival of this new Democrat into the Senate majority does little to change the political calculus on Capitol Hill - with Al Franken still waiting to be seated, the magic number 60 has yet to be reached, and Specter can't be counted on to vote with the majority unless there's something in it for him, as usual - but it was a body blow for the GOP on the public perception level. The party elders and notable mouthpieces turned on each other like rabid wolverines in a meat pit, with some decrying the loss of so-called "moderate" voices like Specter's, and others saying fine, be gone, don't let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya, because the GOP is purifying itself by purging all within who make the Baby Jesus cry.

Sarah Palin spent the last 100 days front and center on the national stage being a national embarrassment for the GOP at large. The front-runner for the 2012 GOP nomination and her insane brood just kept coming and coming, emerging on the news day after day like the occupants of some deranged clown car. Every time Palin or any of her people opened their mouths, the futures market for GOP electoral prospects cratered like a sub-prime hedge fund being run out of a burning building.

Only one out of every four Americans now identify themselves as Republicans, a shattering statistic with the '10 midterms not so far away. "The number of self-identified Republicans has dropped from 30% in 2004," reported Greg Sargent on Thursday, "when President Bush won re-election and seemed to have a fairly stable Congressional majority, to 23% today. Since 2004, of course, Bush and the GOP's policies caused his popularity to crater, triggering the loss of Congress in 2006, the White House in 2008, and the loss of 'roughly a quarter' of the GOP's base, as Pew puts it. Self-identified Democrats, by contrast, have increased from 33% to 35% since 2004, which is not much of a gain and suggests that Dem numbers aren't increasing as a result of GOP losses. Indeed, Pew also finds that since the beginning of the year the number of self-identified Democrats has dropped at the same rate as among Republicans, with Independents showing big gains."

RNC chairman Michael Steele can't seem to get out of his own way, Dick Cheney keeps opening his gob despite being the most despised man in America, Glenn Beck thinks there are FEMA camps being built to incarcerate conservatives and hasn't been shy about sharing his theories in public, and Rush Limbaugh has been ... well ... Rush Limbaugh. Even McCain is facing a primary challenge in Arizona from the same anti-immigration right flank that dogged him into last November's national humiliation.

Even when they try to put a brave face on the situation, Republicans wind up sounding like the trombone player in the Titanic brass band. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was asked to comment about Specter waking up on the left side of the bed. "I will tell you that in 2010 we are working very hard to make sure that we have the kind of candidates across the country on a national scale," said Cornyn, "that will allow the Republican Party to regain our status as a national party, and run competitive races in blue states, and purple states, and in red states." Regain our status as a national party? That was, accidentally or otherwise, one of the most starkly accurate statements you're ever likely to hear from a Republican politician.

The GOP mudfight between cleanse-the-ranks conservatives and broaden-our-appeal moderates shows no sign of abating. "A fundamental debate broke out among Republicans on Wednesday," reported The New York Times, "over how to rebuild the party in the wake of Senator Arlen Specter's departure: Should it purge moderate voices like Mr. Specter and embrace its conservative roots or seek to broaden its appeal to regain a competitive position against Democrats? With consensus growing among Republicans that the party is in its worst political position in recent memory, some conservatives applauded Mr. Specter's departure. But Republican leaders in Washington argued that Republicans would be permanently marginalized unless they showed flexibility on social issues as well as economic ones."

In a New York Times op-ed titled "It's Still My Party," former GOP governor Christine Todd Whitman sounded the alarm on the future prospects for Republicans in America. "Mr. Specter's announcement portends a challenge for Republicans, in terms of both governance and political prospects," wrote Whitman. "To those Republicans counting on the usual phenomenon of off-year election losses for the party holding the presidency, I say do not forget the examples of Roosevelt and George W. Bush, whose parties prospered in 1934 and 2002, respectively. Besides, given the re-election rate of incumbents and the number of Republicans from competitive districts who have retired, the chances of gaining more than a handful of seats is remote. I also worry about the impact of this defection on the gubernatorial races this year in New Jersey and Virginia. Mr. Specter did not reach his decision in a vacuum. He was responding to what he and others saw as a trend in the party - a trend that will make it harder to get out a centrist message."

Harder? Try virtually impossible. The Republican Party is trapped within a toxic fused loop of it's own design. It relied on hate-peddlers like Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage to gin up the party base against all things Democrat, and now must live with that berserk party core being the most muscular component of their coalition. They embraced the Taliban Christians of the South and West, and are now bogged down in a culture war they are losing on all fronts. Every stitch in their trickle-down free-market economic ideology has popped and frayed. Worst of all, they are confronted by a massively popular Democratic president and near-total irrelevancy in Congress. Under these dire conditions, any vaguely moderate GOP voices are bound to be drowned out by the screechers and screamers.

It is now day 104 for the GOP under President Obama. If recent history is any guide, all surviving party members would be well advised to pack a lunch and wear a helmet, because the road ahead looks long, bumpy and headed right for a cliff.

 

William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.
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