WASHINGTON -- During the past summer, a female acquaintance of mine in her 70s who had been a faithful Republican during her long life was solicited by a GOP cold caller as a previous contributor to the party. Not this time. She informed the fundraiser that President Bush's position on immigration was the last straw. She would not give the Republicans another dime -- not now, maybe never. So, she told him, stop calling me!
That rebuff, commonplace in today's Republican fundraising, puts a human face on the Federal Election Commission's cold statistics. They show a commanding Democratic lead over the Republicans in raising money for the 2008 elections. Such an unusual disparity is at once a symptom and a contributing cause of the melancholy suffusing the Grand Old Party as Congress reconvenes after the August break.
As measured by offices held, Republicans have been in much worse shape during my half-century of reporting in Washington. Their party was a mere remnant after the Democratic landslides of 1958, 1964 and 1974. But never before have I seen morale within the party so low. While Republican support for an unpopular war has remained remarkably strong, almost all non-war news during the dreary August recess has been bad for the GOP. The hope is that the eventual elevation of a presidential candidate will revive the party's spirits.
The week before Labor Day, when nothing of importance was supposed to happen, brought bad news for the party just as it appeared nothing worse was possible:
-- The apparent disgrace of Sen. Larry Craig, a former member of the party leadership, is all the worse because several Republican senators and Senate staffers were not a bit surprised. That raises two questions. If so many people knew Craig was an accident waiting to happen, why was he not eased out of office? How many other examples of scandalous behavior are known but hidden?
-- The decision by Sen. John Warner announced Friday not to seek a sixth term from Virginia at age 80 was no surprise but still a disappointment. Former Gov. Mark Warner, no relation and a Democrat, is an overwhelming favorite to win in Virginia next year. Republicans privately estimate that this will be one of four Senate seats they will lose in 2008, giving Democratic Leader Harry Reid a real working majority.
-- Rep. Rick Renzi, investigated by the FBI, announced he would not seek a fourth term for the highly competitive Arizona northern district that could go Democratic. That represents a double whammy for Republicans. Renzi, investigated for receiving an alleged kickback in a land transaction, is but one of at least half a dozen House Republicans under federal inquiry. He also joins a growing number of scandal-free GOP incumbents representing contested districts (most recently Ohio's Deborah Pryce, a former member of the leadership) who are heading for the exits. That depresses meager hopes for restoring a Republican majority in the House in the next election.
-- Most of the dwindled contingent of Republican governors have abandoned conservative principles to embrace the Democratic-sponsored extension of SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program) to people who are neither children nor poor. Only three -- Indiana's Mitch Daniels, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and South Carolina's Mark Sanford -- resist the lure of federal dollars.
Given these multiple developments, the melancholic Republicans yearn for a leader. It cannot be George W. Bush, an unpopular lame duck. The party's many presidential candidates pretend that Bush does not really exist, not mentioning his name during debates. But none has inspired the party faithful. Front-runner Rudy Giuliani is anathema to social conservatives who were the core of Republican success for more than two decades. This situation explains the interest in Fred Thompson as a savior, although he did not fulfill lofty expectations prior to his official announcement of candidacy scheduled Thursday.
Mitt Romney approached the calamitous atmosphere last week by asserting that Sen. Craig, until last week his Idaho state chairman, is part of the capital's corruption that only a real outsider -- specifically, the former governor of Massachusetts -- can cure. Past candidates have succeeded in pointing to corruption in Washington, but always by the opposite party. The Republican Party's next leader faces a more complicated problem.