In the wake of the GOP's banishment to the political wilderness after the 2008 bloodbath, it's evident to me that the party has split into three general factions.
The first group are those who follow the George W. Bush/Colin Powell theory of domestic governance. These are Republicans who either support massive government intervention like Medicare Part D or No Child Left Behind (as Bush did) or those that explicitly reject the Goldwater/Reagan model (as Powell did in announcing his endorsement of Obama in October 2008).
The second group are the tea partiers -- those people who are simply reflexive reactionaries, hysterically opposing everything the Obama administration says or does, believing absurd conspiracy theories about ACORN rigging elections or Obama being a crypto-Marxist, and -- most critically -- refusing to understand the inherent discrepancy in clamoring for lower taxes and cutting the deficit. This group doesn't have any ideas beyond deregulation, cutting spending without pointing out specific areas to cut, and the continued feeding of what Eisenhower termed the military-industrial complex. And it was specifically for this group that the GOP's utterly inconsequential Pledge to America was written.
The third group is made up of people like Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Ross Douthat. Tim Pawlenty was firmly in this group until he began running for president; now, he's dipping his toe in the water of group number two. Newt Gingrich was in this group as well, until he decided he could make more money writing a book. This group doesn't go to rallies, doesn't devour the latest conservative book of the month (Palin's, Romney's, Newt's, Levin's, etc.) and doesn't tune in to Limbaugh. Most importantly, these are the Republicans who (i) have ideas like Paul Ryan's wonderful Roadmap; (ii) have turned a critical eye inward to assess what precisely went wrong from 2001-2008; and (iii) are willing to confront the reality that cutting the deficit and rescuing the country from the looming fiscal abyss will require tough decisions.
If folks like us have our way, the 45th President of the United States will come from this third group. Notably, many people from the first and second groups seem to like Ryan and Christie, especially. They like Daniels the more they learn about him. It's up to the Republican rank-and-file to decide what kind of leader they want. Do they want a demagogue like Palin, who spends her time spitting recycled, tinny cliches and calls her opponents names? Do they want a Romney, who has changed his position on virtually every issue and ebbs and flows with public opinion? Do they want a Huckabee, who, like Palin, has personal charm, but focuses on "family values" and has no real conservative credentials? Do they want someone from the first group like Bush, who drinks the neoconservative kool-aid on foreign policy and largely ignores the guiding principles of fiscal conservatism on domestic matters?
Or, will the Republican Party follow an adult with ideas? Daniels, Pawlenty and Christie are men who have governed in states Barack Obama won in 2008 -- Minnesota and New Jersey in particular are solidly blue -- yet have done so in a fundamentally conservative manner, balancing their state's budgets, injecting new life into their states with cutting-edge policies (read this excellent profile on the wonderfully wonkish Daniels), talk to voters like they're adults, and -- not surprisingly -- have become supremely popular as a result.
These are the men the GOP needs to follow. We don't need Palin's demagoguery, nor Bush's "compassionate conservatism," nor Beck's outlandish conspiracy theories. We need Daniels. We need Ryan. We need Christie. Republicans might well take back the House in the fall, and the Senate and the White House in 2012, but there is no good model for Republican governance in Washington, and virtually no hope for a transformative Republican agenda, save for Ryan. Rather, John Boehner and the congressional leadership will continue to talk a good game about fiscal responsibility, but will refuse to stand up and explain to voters the disastrous fiscal path the last two administrations have set us on.