Fineman: Where the GOP Goes From Here

In the age of Obama, the Republican party has thus far gone missing. So last week, I traveled to Kentucky, where I was an apprentice reporter years ago, to see if I could find it. I went to the corner of Sixth and Jefferson, in downtown Louisville, to a grassy park between the courthouse and the old jail, for a tax-day "tea party." The event I saw was a genuinely grassroots one, spawned on Facebook by a 23-year-old restaurant worker who managed to draw 1,000 folks on a blustery day. The speeches echoed the same apocalyptic themes the GOP will sound in the capital when Congress returns this week: that Obama and the Democrats are on a spending spree that will bankrupt the nation and rob us of all that's left of our freedom.

But it wasn't really a GOP event. Half the crowd was perennial Kentucky "aginners," who oppose the federal government on general principle, who like Ron Paul and the NRA and who don't like or trust either party on spending. Some others at the gathering praised Bill Clinton as a fiscal moderate. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, was not at the rally—and he didn't sound as if he regretted it. Such events, he told me, "shouldn't be totally pooh-poohed." Key word: totally.

Tea parties, of course, will not revive the national party. So what will? There is no one-stop Republican inner council with all the answers. "When you're in the minority like this, it is every man for himself," says Charlie Black, a longtime consultant. But, essentially, this is what GOP strategy amounts to: focus on the mundane; play for time; look for ways to divide the Democrats' large, and perhaps unwieldy, majority; wait for the president's inevitable drop in the polls; and keep distant from Obama's budget, spending and programming. If the GOP is regarded as the "Party of No," so be it. If the economy improves markedly by fall 2010, Republicans aren't going to get credit anyway. If the economy doesn't improve, the president will get the blame. "If he does it by himself, he owns it," says McConnell.

McConnell seems poised for this grinding ground game. Facing 58 Democrats in the Senate, he and his allies appear determined not to cede the disputed Minnesota Senate race to Al Franken; McConnell claimed not to be paying close attention, but he knew every wrinkle of the legal arguments for federal appeal. Facing another daunting round of Senate races next year, Republican leaders are begging well-known figures to run, and hope to replace weak incumbents with stronger options. While McConnell will not say so publicly, Kentuckians think he wants his unpopular colleague, Sen. Jim Bunning, to head for the showers. When I reminded McConnell that Bunning has an approval rating of 28 percent, the response was … silence.

As Obama's $3.5 trillion budget moves toward final passage, the GOP will put some of these strategies to use, pointing out (read: amplifying) Democratic division. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has less clout than his counterpart in the House, Nancy Pelosi, and he risks more defections. The official GOP line is to "work" with moderate Democrats—but it isn't clear Republicans really want to do more than make trouble for the other side.

In the meantime, says McConnell, the party can afford to wait for Obama to make some unpopular decisions and hope the rest of the country catches up to Sixth and Jefferson. "Do we really want to double the national debt in five years?" he asks. "Do we really want to spend so much and grow the government so much? Governing is a hazardous business, and not all of the decisions the president makes are going to be right." So if you're a Republican, perhaps you can rely on hope—if the word weren't already on somebody else's poster.