It wasn't too long ago that the right loved to mention how they were the ones with ideas and all liberals had to offer was obstructionism. During the Social Security debate in 2005 it seemed to reach its apogee. Now that all they have to offer is their own obstructionism the crowing has tapered off quite a bit. The ideas they are left with run the spectrum from being pro war to being pro torture (hat tip Glenn Greenwald). They have no claim to fiscal discipline: A Republican President and Congress inherited a budget surplus and turned it into a massive deficit. They have no small-government credibility: Spending exploded, pork barrel projects went through the roof and they created the biggest entitlement program since Medicare. They have no respect for parliamentary norms and traditions: The vote that made the prescription drug benefit a law was an appalling spectacle. Conservatives approved of all of this. They may have clucked a little here and there but for all intents and purposes they went along. We saw during the immigration debate how forceful they can be when they want to.
In short things look bleak, and I'll go out on a limb and say they'll get worse before they get better. They do control one thing though, and that is how quickly they'd like to hit bottom. Their principles have become only so many collateralized debt obligations waiting to be written down. They can either use the Goldman Sachs approach and write it all off immediately or they can use the Citigroup model and declare losses gradually and grudgingly. All of the Congressional leadership and most of the current candidates for the Republican nomination represent the latter. They are putting on a brave face, embracing the current policies and insisting the big problem has been implementation. We're right on the idea, they say, but the devil is in the details. We just need to tweak it like this and everything will be fine; voters will come back to us. Hogwash, I say. The current brand has suffered a permanent loss of capital. It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, the sooner the better. If they try to hang on they will see big losses in the 2008 election and no substantial gains for at least a couple thereafter. It will be a long, cold, lonely season that will only end when they decisively repudiate this generation's leadership and attempt to regain their majority by persuading a skeptical public with no reason to trust them. Or they could just crash and burn right now and get on with it.
There is a big upside to a properly done Goldwater-type blowout next year and the best candidate for the job is Ron Paul. I can't imagine he'd win more than a handful of states in the general election; off the top of my head I'd say some mountain west states like Montana and Idaho would be pretty good bets but the rest of the country not so much. The upside for this is instant rehabilitation of the Republican brand. He alone in the field is vehemently against the current unconservative Republican agenda. He voted against the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the Military Commissions Act of 2006. He voted against the USA Patriot Act in 2001 and 2005. During the period that Republicans were cheerfully selling their souls for George W. Bush's political benefit Ron Paul was a lonely voice on the right trying to get his caucus to stick by its principles. His willingness to do so looks better and better all the time.
Paul was far outside the mainstream of the party at the time and he still largely is. But he also represents the only viable option in facing the voters. Until the mainstream makes its way to him Republicans will be left with wholly unpalatable options. They may try to paint the Democrats as "tax and spend" liberals, but voters have learned the hard way one virtue of tax and spend: At least you're paying as you go. Republicans offer "spend and don't tax and let the next generation pay for it." They may cry over the evil of big-government Democrats, but given the levers of power they provided incompetent, intrusive and even bigger government. Once again voters ruefully note how much better the Democratic version is in hindsight. The current crop of Republicans are wedded to this train wreck and will continually lose until they can uncouple from it. Ron Paul has the credibility to do that right now.