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The incredible shrinking GOP 

Specter's defection resulted in a quasi-meltdown among Republican leaders and their TV/radio shock-jock chorus, who began slinging insults at not only Specter, but at each other, in a free-for-all that had all the appeal of being on the edge of a crowd at a bad car wreck. The head of the Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who is about as conservative as you can get, declared that his goal in the 2010 election was for the GOP to "regain our status as a national party." Wow. That's quite an admission by Cornyn, recognizing that his party, the outfit that ruled the roost during the Bush years, is in deep, deep trouble.

Meanwhile last week, Obama cruised through his press conference with an ease and calmness that may as well have been planned as a contrast to the Republicans' noisy self-destruction. Over and over, the president defended his policies clearly; it's becoming plainer every week why those who've known him for some time call him "No Drama Obama." He made it plain that the United States no longer engages in torture; he admitted "grave concern" about Pakistan, but evenly assured viewers that, "I'm confident that we can make sure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is secure." And, thank God, he urged people to remain calm about swine flu, which, as of this writing, has infected a whopping 100 people in the United States -- less than 1-30,000th of 1 percent of the population.

No matter what policy differences Americans may have so far with the Obama administration (for the record, I'm not happy about several actions), last week's news conference couldn't help but reassure many people that the guy in charge knows what's going on and can keep his head on straight about it. Contrast Obama's calm confidence with the images of red-faced Republican lawmakers going ballistic over Sen. Specter, and you get a feel for why the president has such high approval ratings -- and why only about 20 percent of Americans identify with the GOP these days.

The bad news for Republicans didn't seem to reach a couple of GOP lawmakers from the Carolinas, however, which, I guess, is no big surprise. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina denied to CNN's Rick Sanchez that his party was shrinking, and followed with an explanation so bewildering, Sanchez understandably replied, "What the hell does that mean?" Meanwhile, the always-entertaining Rep. Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk presented evidence of what's wrong with her party by claiming that the thoroughly documented, homophobia-fueled murder of Matthew Shepherd was "a hoax," a statement she had to retract almost immediately.

Things are so bad for the Republicans that even George W. Bush, unlike most former presidents, is becoming more unpopular than when he left office, according to the Wall Street Journal, with approval ratings dropping from 31 percent to 26 percent. A worried group of party higher-ups including John McCain and Jeb Bush decided last week to launch a "rebranding" campaign, intent on "reviving the image" of the GOP. Within 24 hours, however, some Republicans were worrying that "rebranding" might mean welcoming moderates into the party, and, by inference, ticking off Rush Limbaugh.

And there is the GOP's problem in a nutshell: As most polls show the country's voters moving to the left (e.g., an ABC/Washington Post poll last week showed all-time high numbers in support of gay marriage, while three-fourths favor federal regulation of greenhouse gases), Republicans are more than ever associated in the public mind with extremist blowhards like Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, or, the current media darling of the far right, FoxNews' Glenn Beck.

Back in February, American Conservative magazine, co-founded by Pat Buchanan, ran a cover story that lamented "How Radio Wrecks the Right." In it, AC grumbled that the Fox/Rush crew's "dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand" through what they called "low-brow conservatism," or a "Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar" that is overly reflexive and downplays serious thought.

No more proof is needed of the Buchanan crowd's views on "low-brow conservatism" than spending some time with the obviously semi-deranged Glenn Beck. Day after day, Beck uses his show to tell viewers that America is in grave peril; we're doomed; the president's a "socialist" one day, a "fascist" the next; the government is a "heroin pusher using smiley-faced fascism to grow the nanny state"; and Obama wants to take your guns and indoctrinate your children to be socialists. Beck is hilarious in a way, or at least mesmerizingly weird, but his infantile brands of right-wing bluster -- along with the sourpuss antics of Limbaugh, Hannity, Michael Savage, et al. -- have become dangerous to the Republicans because, to most Americans, these clowns are the face of the party.

It's a hell of a dilemma for the GOP, but surely they can't be that surprised. For the last 16 years, they have marched to the tune played by the Fox/Rush crew. Now they're starting to see where it got them.

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