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Perry on Politics: Dreaming of Big Ideas

Published by Tim McNulty on .

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By James M. Perry

So where do the Republicans go from here?

They probably should have won this election; instead, they lost by a smashing 97 electoral votes and allowed the Democrats to pick up seats in the Senate. Mitt Romney looked like a winner. He had deep roots in the Republican Party -- his father, George, was a successful governor of Michigan. Mitt himself had been a blazingly successful businessman. He rescued a Winter Olympics; he served one term as governor of heavily Democratic Massachusetts. He had a charming wife and a beautiful family. Millions, maybe billions, were spent to put him in the White House.

The economy was a mess and his opponent, President Barack Obama, seemed to have run out of gas. Mr. Romney won the first debate. He crushed a lethargic Mr. Obama.

But a deep-seated problem was lurking for Mr. Romney -- he was the temporary leader of an all-white,all conservative, all anti-government party. As he tried to adjust to the demands of these modern-day Republicans, heavily infiltrated by tea-party activists, he lost his credibility.ChristieSandy

Successful politicians at all levels need to be competent and authentic. Mr. Romney turned out to be neither. The only Republican with a national following these days that seems both competent and authentic is Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and as his state was being battered by Hurricane Sandy, he turned to Mr. Obama for solace and assistance.

After that first debate, Mr. Obama pulled himself together and waged an energetic, almost heroic, campaign to save himself and his party. He appeared competent, even if not everyone, including people who voted for him, are certain about his authenticity.

The Republicans face a grim future. Latinos were a huge plus for Mr. Obama; they will be increasingly important as the years go by. Demographics favor the Democrats, as far as the eye can see.

What will they do about it? I suppose some will argue Mr. Romney wasn't conservative enough, that all the party needs is a true conservative, such as Mr. Romney's running mate. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who seems to have vanished in the final days of the campaign. Maybe somebody, here and there in the party, will stand up and say this isn't working and we need to get back to the moderate roots that gave us Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller.

As a starter, maybe congressional Republicans could reach out to Democrats and pass a workable immigration bill.

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What we need, politicians and pundits kept telling us, is big ideas. Big ideas, though, are rare in American politics. George Washington's big idea was to institutionalize the new office created by the Constitution and make it work. He did just that, and we should bless him for it. Abraham Lincoln's big idea was to preserve the Union and free the slaves. He did both. Teddy Roosevelt restored the power of the presidency. Dwight Eisenhower created the interstate highway system that changed the face of the nation.

The Republican Party's only big ideas are very old ones -- cut taxes, cut the size of the Federal government, increase defense spending. Mr. Obama's biggest idea was Obamacare, universal health coverage, but that goes back more than 60 years to Harry Truman.

So is there a big idea he and the Democrats could embrace during the next four years? I think so. Hurricane Sandy was the October surprise, and it reminded us that global warming is a fact and we need to do something about it. Changing, destructive weather patterns could put the country more at risk than a shortfall in funds to pay for Social Security. Maybe Republicans could join hands with Democrats and make the Big Idea (whatever it might turn out to be) reality. It's the morning after the election, and I am, of course, dreaming just a little.

Otherwise, we can hope for four years of competent stewardship by Mr. Obama and the Democrats -- not a bad thing -- and maybe the next president would have the guts to take on global warming.

What if Mr. Obama, the nation's first black president, was succeeded by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the nation's first female president? Where would the Republicans be then?

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com during the presidential election. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

Photos: AP, Philadelphia Inquirer, National Archives

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