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Commentary: The politics of self destruction

  • Story Highlights
  • Begala: Republican party has "got more flakes than Post Toasties"
  • Republicans can hasten their comeback by following the Clinton model, he says
  • Strategy would involve challenging established orthodoxies, modernizing movement
By Paul Begala
CNN Contributor
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Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is an affiliated professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute.

Paul Begala says Gov. Sarah Palin was an impediment to the hard work Republicans need to do to rebuild the party.

Paul Begala says Gov. Sarah Palin was an impediment to the hard work Republicans need to do to rebuild the party.

(CNN) -- I'm sure Republican strategists look at their bench and think of what Casey Stengel said of the 1962 Mets: "Can't anybody here play this game?"

David Vitter is on the D.C. Madam's call list. John Ensign confesses to an affair with a staffer. Mark Sanford cries for his soul mate in Argentina. And now Sarah Palin calls it quits.

The Republican Party was once a solid, serious, stable group of people. It was the party of Eisenhower, of Ford -- and not too long ago, the party of Colin Powell. Now it's got more flakes than Post Toasties.

For all her whining about the ethics complaints brought against her, Sarah Palin is not the victim of the politics of personal destruction. She's the victim of the politics of self destruction.

I have no idea why Palin decided to quit, so let's just pretend she was telling the truth: She believes she can make more of a difference on the issues she cares about as a private citizen than as the chief executive of the Last Frontier. My guess is a lot of Alaskans wish she'd said that when she was trying to become governor, but what the heck.

It is a paradox of the modern Republican Party: If they hate government so much, why don't they leave it to those who can use it as a tool for national renewal? Republicans say government would screw up a one-car parade, and then when they get into government, they set about proving their theory right (e.g., Katrina, Iraq, the economy, etc.).

The speculation is that, rather than returning to being a private citizen, Palin aspires to the presidency. Good luck. She quit her job as city councilwoman to run for mayor of Wasilla. She quit her job as mayor of Wasilla to run for lieutenant governor. She quit her job as the head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to run for governor. And now she's quitting her job as governor to ... be a private citizen? Right.

Part of the GOP's problem is that conservatism has been discredited by George W. Bush and the Republicans who controlled Congress for most of his presidency. Fiscal restraint, once a hallmark of the GOP, is history. It was Bill Clinton who balanced the budget, and Republicans who ran up trillions in debt. National security, a GOP strength since Vietnam, has been squandered.

A recent Democracy Corps poll shows that by almost 2-to-1, Americans prefer President Obama's approach on national security to the Bush-Cheney approach. Economic stewardship? Please. The Republicans inherited a robust economy, an economy that generated 23 million new jobs -- and left us with a battered, shattered economy that's shedding jobs at a record pace.

And how about family values? If the recent GOP scandals have proved anything, it is that neither party has a monopoly on virtue, but one has planted itself firmly at the corner of sanctimony and hypocrisy.

Republicans need to rebuild, and Palin was an impediment to the hard work they need to do. Sure, they need a charismatic leader -- and Palin is nothing if not charismatic. But Ronald Reagan had ideas to match his charisma. The current crop of Republicans repeat the same disgraced talking points George W. Bush used -- limited government, strong defense, family values. No one's buying their snake oil anymore.

The GOP will rebound, to be sure. Politics is cyclical, but sometimes those cycles take decades. Republicans can hasten their comeback by following the Clinton model: Challenge established orthodoxies, overturn outdated dogma and modernize their movement.

Clinton committed the heresy of supporting welfare reform, tough anti-crime policies, free trade and fiscal discipline. In so doing he paved the way for President Obama. No one today is attacking President Obama on crime or welfare; Clinton took those Republican-dominated issues off the table.

If the Republicans were smart, they'd find a principled compromise on health care and energy -- take those two Democratic-dominated issues off the table -- and then work on rebuilding their fiscal credentials.

Instead, the GOP has a strategy of implacable opposition on issues where the country wants action, increasingly wild attacks on a popular president, and a desperate search for a charismatic savior. That's no way to rebuild their party. The bloviations of Limbaugh, the winking of Palin and the dark brooding of Dick Cheney are no substitute for new ideas.

Until Republicans prove they can revive their beleaguered party, no one will trust them to lead our beloved country.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

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