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More GOP Senate quitters: Real despair or real opportunities?

January 13, 2009 |  2:22 am

Time is running out on President George W. Bush and vice president Dick Cheney's term

Evolving conventional wisdom holds that the growing string of senior Republican senators packing it in for retirement or a governor's office means gloom for the party in next year's midterm congressional elections, which are usually a time for an incumbent president's party to suffer.

But, counterintuitively, that may not be the case.

Bill Clinton remembers the Republican revolution of 1994 only too well -- and so does one of his top aides then, Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's incoming White House chief of staff. Indeed, Emanuel, who took over the House seat of someone named Rod Blagojevich in 2002, was one of the main engineers of the Democrats' congressional turnaround in 2006 that ended 12 years of rare Republican rule on the Hill.

About 12 hours ago, Ohio GOP Sen. George Voinivich announced his retirement next year at 72. He said he wanted to pursue more spiritual fulfillment. He's the fourth Republican senator to hit the streets in recent days -- Missouri's Kit Bond is opting out at 69, Florida's Mel Martinez returns to private business (and his potential prohibitive replacement, ex-Gov. Jeb Bush, decides to stay there). And Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is leaving to go for the governor's office.

Additionally, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson has made noises about going home to challenge incumbent GOP Gov. Rick Perry, there being no Lone Star love lost there.

Though most seem to cite the political equivalent of "spending more time with family," there are several other truths. It's brutal to be the distinct congressional minority, especially when the other party takes over the White House with such a wave of popular enthusiasm even before next week's inauguration. Enjoying cozy honeymoons is a hard time to conceive of disenchantment and divorce, though half of them eventually end there.

It's increasingly expensive to run and tiresome to raise the vast sums necessary to buy victory.

And, while the eight-year, 100% dedication of Dick Cheney to George W. Bush provided initial gravitas and helped advance and protect the president's agenda, giving the Texas governor profound, ...

... inside-Washington wisdom uncolored by future political motives, it denied the party an apprentice president, the way Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, had eight years to train and become known under Ronald Reagan.

As one result, Bush leaves his Republican Party bereft of national leadership right now, another reason that heightens the importance of the election of a new Republican National Committee chairman at month's end in Washington. Two of the six candidates are African Americans.

Many Republicans are not in the mood now to listen to Bush. But in his fiRepublican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and his wife Supriyanal presidential news conference Monday, the Republican who earned 43% of Texas' Latino vote as governor advised his party to be more inclusive. A good idea and easier for political groups to do during hard, hungry times.

Without an obvious presidential choice last year, Republicans did the usual: They turned to the next in line. In 1996, that meant Sen. Bob Dole.

Last year, it meant Sen. John McCain, a political leftover from 2000 who worked very hard and appeared to deserve his turn because none of the other possibilities ignited much emotion.

(And Rep. Ron Paul was even older than McCain.)

Republicans historically do not do well when they run legislators for president. Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a House alum. But that was a different time. Think of ex-Sen. Richard Nixon in 1960, Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964, Dole in '96, McCain '08. Gerald Ford was a VP. But he was unelected to that office and carried the weight of the Nixon pardon and a more indelible House reputation.

Modern American voters seem to prefer a chief executive type. Four of the last five presidents were governors (two Democrat, two Republican), and the fifth was a sitting Republican vice president, who trumped a Democratic governor.

Alaska Republican Governor Sarah Palin

Which suggests Republicans should look to expand the dwindled ranks of their 21 governors, down from a high of 32 in the '90s. Three dozen gubernatorial seats will be up for grabs next year.

With a shrinking media increasingly focused on Washington, it's harder to build a national reputation from Baton Rouge, Anchorage or St. Paul, though that's the kind of places where the heavy lifting and reinventing of governing occurs.

But one other little-noticed political phenomenon suggests an opening, a developing voter volatility that could play a key role in shaping the 2012 race: The last three presidents (Clinton, Bush II and Obama) have won the White House on their very first try.

This would seem to imply that the 2012 winner will be either an incumbent or a relative unknown knocking off an incumbent who disappointed his base, as Bush I did over taxes. Americans now seem willing to go with inexperience, as long as it involves inexperience in Washington.

In that sense, the voluntary disappearance of a generation of old, white Senate Republicans could present a real opportunity for newcomers with new ideas to burst on to the scene if state parties and a new national chairman can incubate and encourage a fresh breed of candidates as part of the perpetual party cleansings and reinventions in a democracy like this.

Then, of course, all they need do is get more votes than their Democratic opponent.

--Andrew Malcolm

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Top photo: President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Credit: Eric Draper / The White House. Middle photo: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and wife, Supriya. Credit: Associated Press). Lower photo: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Credit: Getty Images