Lombardo: Identity crisis leaves Republicans in disarray

In 1968 there was a power struggle within the Democratic Party that pitted the old school Democrats, embodied by Hubert Humphrey, against a leaderless youth movement. The unrest amongst the Democrats built until it exploded with riots at the national convention that year.

That convention signaled the death of politics as usual within the Democratic Party. The nomination process was reformed, and the party became the voice for those who couldn't speak. The latter aspect made governing hard, as the Democrats knew they wanted change but had no cohesive plan of attack to implement it. Fortunately for them, President Bush served as a unifying force, and in 2004 rallied the Democratic Party around the agreed-upon mantra, "anyone but Bush."

While they were defeated in 2004, they would emerge unified to defeat a Republican Party that was in disarray. Those midterm elections foreshadowed the crisis within the Republican Party today, which has created an absence of a national identity.

A crisis had begun in part after Bush squandered the strength of the Reagan coalition. He abandoned fiscal conservatives, embarked on failed foreign policy and used the federal government like a Democrat. Bush left the party running four different ways at once and going nowhere.

While the current candidates are doing their best impersonations of "The Gipper" to assume command of the sinking ship, none have given a convincing performance.

The base frowns on Huckabee's "liberal" approach to the economy, McCain's unpredictable stance on central issues, Romney's rebirth as a social conservative, and the fact that Giuliani is from New York City. (Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race Wednesday.) But all four will always offend some aspect of the Republican base, and it's partially because they're candidates for the 21st century while the base still envisions pre-New Deal politics.

The Republicans can't go backwards in time, because that would mean nominating a candidate like Ron Paul, who would have been perfect for the 19th century, but can't exist in a world where the elderly demand Social Security and Medicare, national defense is a must, and paved roads are preferred over dirt paths.

The Democrats have evolved over time, and it's time the Republicans recognize that political principles are not stagnant. That doesn't mean abandoning core Republican values regarding states' rights, free markets, conservative spending and an unhealthy obsession with the death penalty, but it does mean adapting to the real world. It means dealing with health care, exploring the meaning of a compassionate conservative, and creating an immigration policy that won't alienate a Hispanic population whose vote is necessary to win the presidency.

Four viable options for the presidency won't tear the Republican Party apart, but if they continue to focus on what constitutes a Christian and other petty squabbles that leave the party in search of a Republican purist, then they'll retain their virtue and lose doing it. There is no issue like national security or gay marriage that will get the base out in force this year, and while Hillary Clinton could drive Republicans to the polls, the party needs to craft an image for the 21st century or it will never get a chance to govern.