GOP Gut-Check

by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen George W. Bush hired Dick Cheney to help him pick a running mate back in 2000, he got some surprising advice. Cheney recommended himself for the job, and he's shaped the Bush presidency ever since. Now he's shaping the post-Bush years, too -- indirectly. When Cheney joined the ticket, he made it known it would be his last job -- that means he'd never carry on the Bush presidency by running himself, the way the first George Bush and Al Gore both did.

In fact, the 2008 presidential election will be the first since 1952 without either an incumbent president or vice president standing for reelection. And not knowing who to support seems to be driving the Republican Party crazy.

Every election provides a kind of reset button for our political parties, but this one -- the most wide open in years, with 16 candidates entering the final stretch to Iowa next week -- should be a real slate-wiper.

But it's less so for the Democrats, whose top three candidates, despite all the campaign bluster, aren't really all that different on the issues. Hillary and Obama might be getting the headlines, and the Democratic Party certainly has its own problems, but the real drama is going to be over on the GOP side. The nomination is on the line, just as it is every four years, but for Republicans, so is the entire future of the party.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & or decades now, the Republican Party has been held together by an uneasy alliance of Wall Streeters and Main Streeters -- the money and morality wings of the party. George W. Bush has been the perfect blend, telling the moralizers what they want to hear -- killing stem cell research and promoting medieval judges -- while quietly giving the money men everything they ever wanted, too -- no pesky regulations and tax cuts as far as the eye can see.

But there are cracks in that foundation, and they're starting to spread. To begin with, there's no candidate who fits easily into that hybrid role Bush played so well. Mitt Romney is the closest thing, with his big-money background and pious posture -- trouble is, his brand of Christianity isn't going down with the party faithful as smoothly as Bush's did. Wall Street loves Rudy Giuliani, but he's too gay-friendly for a lot of Republican primary voters. Instead, the Bible Belt seems to be rushing to Mike Huckabee, but the hedge fund managers aren't crazy about his economic populism and the class divisions it can inflame. John McCain could work, but over the years he has stood up to both wings of the party, making his support lukewarm. And Ron Paul is creating lots of excitement, but it seems the GOP will ultimately turn its back on him and his legion of Independent/Libertarian supporters -- a group that would be easy pickings for a Michael Bloomberg third-party run.

As you can see, this is a party that can't figure out who it likes.

And there's essentially no margin for error, as shown by the last two presidential election results -- both among the closest in American history. (If Ohio had gone to Kerry, the GOP would have already had this conversation; winning, even narrowly, put their day of reckoning off for another four years.)

The calculus is brutal: If Rudy Giuliani wins the nomination, the party runs the risk of alienating a large block of reliable voters. If Mike Huckabee wins the nomination, the party runs the risk of losing the business backing that has been just as important. And that's just analyzing Republican primary voters; it gets worse from there. Whoever wins may have had to hug Bush's sinking ship so tight that they'll alienate an even larger crowd -- general election voters. It's a crazy tightrope, with no net down below.

And it should worry all Americans -- after all, the Republican Party is one of the two pillars of our system of government. Should the GOP be dedicated to promoting Jesus' vision for the world? And what is that vision: peace on Earth or preparing for the end times? Should the party stay committed to cowboy diplomacy, seeking to spring the next Iraq in some unfortunate corner of the globe? Should it just cut taxes, all day and every day? Should it get back to being the party of Lincoln? Of Teddy Roosevelt? Ronald Reagan? Just what should it be?

These are questions that will be answered in large part by who is nominated to lead the GOP into this presidential election. And right now, it's anybody's guess.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here's another school of thought, even among some Republicans, that the party needs to take its licks. It's strayed too far off course, into the waters of huge deficits, foreign entanglements and ethical and legal problems. Like an overblown financial market, the party needs a correction, and even though those can get pretty ugly, such a cleansing experience, some say, would be the only way to get the party back on track.

And a correction seems likely (especially if they nominate the wrong candidate), because by the time people vote in November, Bush will be putting the finishing touches on three years of an approval rating hovering around 30 percent. These are the makings of an electoral debacle.

All I'm hoping is that the GOP steps back from the edge and becomes a more safe and sane political movement. Maybe they'll find the right candidate somewhere out in Iowa's cornfields, or maybe they'll have to sort it out after a mini-Armageddon on Election Day.

The Bible says the meek will inherit the earth, but who will inherit the GOP?