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Borger: GOP faces choice between purity and new ideas

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  • Borger: GOP has to ask hard questions as it tries to rebuild
  • She says President Bush and the economy only partly to blame for losses
  • Borger: What the GOP needs now is new ideas
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By Gloria Borger
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's no surprise that when a political team loses an election, it asks the obvious questions: What went wrong? What could we have done differently? Who (or what) cost us the election? And, of course, what do we do next?

Gloria Borger says the GOP won't gain by opposing most everything the new president wants.

However, if you're a surviving Republican right now, those questions hardly seem adequate.

You had a presidential candidate in John McCain who could have appealed to independent voters, and instead lost decisively. You had a cultural conservative in running mate Sarah Palin, who flamed out -- and is now preoccupied with resurrecting her personal image (what GOP?) in the hopes of regaining the national stage.

Congressional Republicans in the Northeast are now an endangered species; Democrats have made major inroads in the once ruby-red Mountain West. The only place, it seems, that is more Republican than in 2004 is the Deep South -- not exactly a base for a major national GOP comeback.

It would be easy, of course, to ask the simple questions and then blame the whole mess on George W. Bush and the economy. That's what Palin has taken to doing. And while she's not entirely wrong, she's mostly wrong. There's a lot more the GOP needs to think about.

In fact, if the Republicans sit back and just blame it on circumstances and an unpopular president, they're heading for irrelevancy -- if not disintegration.

Does the GOP really want to be monochromatic -- an all-white, non-Hispanic party? Does it want to be the party of old folks, mostly men, who live in the South? And, while we're asking questions, does it want to become the party of "No," opposing most everything the new president wants?

The answer, at least this time: No. Because when you spend all of your time in the opposition, railing against the other party, people will never quite know what you stand for. The temptation to do it is immense, of course -- particularly since the Republicans seem fresh out of new ideas.

But it's not going to be helpful, particularly when the public wants to get something done in Washington. It won't be a good idea to continue to stoke the bitter cultural fights, or depend on the old tax-and-spend arguments, either. The nation is in the midst of a huge fiscal crisis, and the public wants answers.

So, the intellectual debate can continue over whether this is a center-right country or a center-left country.

Right now, at least, it's a centered country -- focused intently on making sure Americans can afford their homes and don't lose their jobs or retirement savings. And the answers to those questions are bound to come from the center, which will suit the American public just fine.

In Tuesday's New York Times, columnist David Brooks makes the case that, in the short term at least, the "traditionalists" in the GOP -- those wedded to the notion that Republicans lost because the party has swayed too much from its tried-and-true orthodoxy -- will reign supreme. After all, he says, they still control the levers of power within the party, and that counts for a lot.

If that's the case, it's too bad. What the GOP needs is ideas. After all, it was the ideas contained in the "Contract With America" that brought New Gingrich to power more than a decade ago.

The descendants of Newt now reside in the GOP, and they're fighting to be heard. They could provide the intellectual underpinnings for a revised GOP -- if the party is smart and wants to thrive and reach out to now-alienated constituencies.

Otherwise, the party can wallow in its purity, closing doors to those who might be looking for an alternative, shrinking its appeal every step of the way.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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