By Mort Kondracke
How can the Republican Party rebound? The first step would be to quit letting Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham set its agenda.
A second step would be for Congressional Republicans to actually try to help President-elect Barack Obama succeed in addressing the country's dire problems -- offering better ideas where appropriate and opposing just when necessary, not reflexively.
And the third -- maybe the biggest one -- would be for GOP governors to use their posts to show the country how conservatives can solve problems, especially the dismal state of American education and its menacing cousin, lagging American competitiveness.
If one governor would fully implement a widely circulated proposal to transform U.S. education -- based on having most children graduate after 10th grade and using the savings to pay teachers like professionals -- it could serve as a model for the nation and bring the United States back to world standards.
But Step One is to fire Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as the intellectual bosses of the GOP. They shouldn't be muzzled, as some liberals want to do by reviving the "fairness doctrine" in broadcasting, just ignored more frequently.
In recent years, Republicans have let right-wing talk show hosts whip the GOP base into frenzies -- over immigration, brain-damage victim Terry Schiavo and same-sex marriage -- that have branded the party as troglodyte.
The result is that the demographic groups representing the future of American politics shifted decisively to the Democratic Party in 2008 -- Latinos, young people, the well-educated, moderates, working women, first-time voters, suburbanites and "seculars."
As former White House political guru Karl Rove observed last week, "the GOP will find it hard to regain the majority" if it keeps losing Latinos.
Immigration scarcely was an issue during the fall campaign. But the damage was done over the past two years as the radio screamers roused the rabble, who then beat on GOP Members of Congress, presidential candidates and even the Bush administration not just to control the border but treat undocumented residents as felons.
At a briefing last week jointly sponsored by the "New Democrat" Progressive Policy Institute and Web site Democratic Strategist, author Ruy Teixeira said that the gist of his widely doubted 2002 book, "The Emerging Democratic Majority," is now becoming reality.
"Democrats are going where they're growing," he said, while Republicans are isolating themselves in a fading portion of the population -- old, white, less-educated, highly religious Southerners.
Others at the briefing, notably Bill Galston, a former Clinton White House aide now at the Brookings Institution, cautioned that the country has not taken a sharp left turn, a re-alignment has not yet occurred and that Democrats should beware of overreaching.
Which brings us to Step 2 for Republicans: Be positive and pragmatic, not negative and fundamentalist. If Democrats go off the left end, following their Rush Limbaughs in the blogosphere, the GOP may only need to sit and wait until the inevitable reaction occurs.
But Obama appears to be a pragmatist and is hiring pragmatists -- Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) in the lead -- to run his administration.
So Republicans should follow the advice of Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.): "if [Obama] governs from the center, we'll support him and suggest better ways of doing things. If he goes too far left, we'll object."
Part of the problem, of course, lies in deciding what's "center" and "too left." Right now, Republicans are merely saying "No" to a new economic stimulus and rescues for auto companies and homeowners, rather than devising alternatives.
Conservative economist Martin Feldstein of Harvard University, for instance, contends that the government should prevent a cascade of mortgage foreclosures by lending "underwater" homeowners part of the difference between their home's value and what they owe -- but on terms that allow garnishment of their wages if they don't pay the debt.
Longer range, as Alexander says, Republicans can't simply dust off 20-year-old mantras of the Reagan era, but have to devise 21st century solutions for America's problems like health care, entitlements, energy and transportation.
And GOP Members of Congress should do everything possible to assist GOP governors in addressing their problems -- and also learn from what they are doing to solve them.
Which brings us to Step 3. Governors like Sarah Palin (Alaska), Tim Pawlenty (Minn.), Bobby Jindal (La.), Haley Barbour (Miss.), Charlie Crist (Fla.) and others actually have responsibility for implementing health care programs, building infrastructure, saving energy, developing economies and balancing budgets.
Three governors -- Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. (Utah) and Democrats Deval Patrick (Mass.) and John Lynch (N.H.) -- have set up pilot projects partially implementing proposals of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, issued last year.
Significantly, their initiatives have been blessed by leaders of the National Education Association, though its rival, the American Federation of Teachers, opposes them.
Under the proposal, states would take over schools from local boards, teachers would form corporations to run schools on contract and hire principals, salaries would go up significantly to attract first-rate teachers and standards would be set to international norms.
Most students would graduate after 10th grade and go on to upgraded trade or tech schools, while others stayed and took college-level courses. And money saved would also fund preschool for needy kids.
If one governor fully implemented the proposal, his or her state could be a competitiveness juggernaut, set a model for the nation -- and begin solving America's biggest long-term problem.
Actually solving big problems -- not pandering to a shrinking demographic base -- is the key to Republican success. Good luck.
Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.