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The GOP's Road To Recovery

This column was written by Fred Barnes.

It's not particularly visible at the moment, but there is a road to political recovery for Republicans. Chances are they won't get far enough down it to recapture the House or Senate or even hold the White House in 2008. But they might.

Three things have to happen for Republicans to recover — in effect, a political hat trick. Events must work in their favor, notably in Iraq. Democrats must screw up badly. And Republicans must change their ways, in a compelling fashion. This last requirement may be the toughest.

Let's start with events. The debate over whether a war gone bad in Iraq was the primary cause of sweeping Republican losses in last year's midterm election will never be resolved. Clearly the war hurt — more than a little. Just as clearly, a turnaround in Iraq would help enormously.

But even if the "surge" is as successful as it appears it might be, there's a problem. While public support has increased recently, the war still faces deep-seated opposition. There's a widespread view that its cost in lives, money and national prestige has been too high. This won't change overnight. Public opinion isn't quite that fickle.

It's not immutable, however. What if military success by Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander, is matched by a political breakthrough engineered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Or matched by the acceleration of political reconciliation at the provincial rather than the national level in Iraq? Either scenario is possible.

Grass-roots reconciliation is already spreading at a pace not far behind military gains. And this, after all, is the formula on which the surge was based — that success in fighting al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias would be accompanied by, or lead to, political progress. Should the situation continue to improve, American attitudes about the war, President Bush and Republicans, would surely improve, marginally at least and perhaps a bit more.

Nothing would boost Republicans more than visible progress in Iraq, yet other conceivable events would help. Mr. Bush can't erase the memory of his inept handling of Hurricane Katrina. But if another disaster occurred and the president responded effectively, that would counteract the memory of his Katrina performance.

So would a serious confrontation with Congress over spending, assuming Mr. Bush and Republicans win public approval as thoughtful budget cutters. And so, too, would the absence of an economic downturn as the president prepares to leave office enhance the reputation of Republicans for pursuing sensible economic policies. In short, a positive turn of events, while unpredictable, is the best hope of the GOP.

A spectacular Democratic blunder? Republicans shouldn't count on it. Democrats have downplayed cultural issues like abortion and gun control that alienated voters in the past. They championed organized labor's agenda, but the most egregious items (ending secret ballot certification elections and unionizing Transportation Security Administration employees) failed to pass and are now forgotten. Democrats tried mightily to force a troop drawdown in Iraq and failed there, too. This may revive, over the long term, their reputation for weakness on national security. For now, they're OK.

There are traps Democrats must avoid. When Gen. Petraeus reports next month on progress in Iraq, it would be dangerous for them to question his truthfulness, as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid already has, and dispute his advice. The general has far more credibility than they do. Nonetheless, if Gen. Petraeus voices optimism about winning in Iraq, Democrats may be irresistibly tempted to ignore him and press again for retreat. That's one trap.

On fiscal issues, Democrats foolishly dismissed the president's insistence on cutting $22 billion from overall discretionary spending, claiming it was a puny amount. To them, it is. To the public, it's not. A veto war on spending bills is likely to work in Mr. Bush's favor, though not if weak-willed congressional Republicans cut and run. Should it lead to a government shutdown — call it the shutdown trap — that would be all the more harmful to Democrats.

On taxes, Democrats appear confident there's no trap at all, so long as they don't raise taxes on the middle class. Thus congressional Democrats have felt free to pass tax hikes this year on energy companies, foreign corporations and cigarettes, and they're poised to repeal the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year.

Republicans believe Democrats have misread their mandate on taxes. We'll see.

The recipe for Republicans is to stop acting like, well, Republicans — that is, Republicans of recent vintage. In Congress, they've been soft on earmarks, the source of so much corruption. They practically invited Democrats to trump them on ethics and lobbying reform. And they've allowed their obsession with illegal immigrants to get out of hand. This drives away Hispanic voters and leaves the impression that Republicans are small-minded, ungenerous and nasty. The worst offenders are the presidential candidates, who would be wise to tone down their rhetoric on immigration.

Transforming a negative image hardened over a period of years is no easy task. Still, there's a lot Republicans can do. First, they should clean house of Republicans caught up in scandal. Forcing two or three House members and at least one senator to retire would involve more than friendly persuasion and no doubt provoke strong resistance. But the effort would attract national attention — favorable attention, for a change.

Some of the best and most ethical Republicans believe earmarks are a worthwhile tool for incumbents. Maybe so, but they're now indelibly associated with corruption. This presents Republicans with a huge opportunity. Democrats have preserved earmarks. Republicans should advocate their elimination and, additionally, urge Mr. Bush to veto any bill containing earmarks. This would be a radical reform, which for Republicans means it's just what the doctor ordered.

As Karl Rove has noted, Republicans need a big idea. The best available is the one Mr. Bush abandoned: ownership. Allowing private investment of payroll taxes for Social Security would only be a start. An Ownership Society would allow individual Americans, rather than government, to control how and where their health care, public education, 401(k) and IRA funds are spent.

At the moment, wherever Republicans look there's mostly bad news. Democrats are raising more money. Their presidential candidates are generating more excitement. Polls show the public identifies with them by a wide margin. Yet there's a path to recovery, possibly even quick recovery. Republicans ought to take it.

By Fred Barnes

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