WHAT OTHERS SAY: GOP leaders need to act fast to save a troubled party

Friday, August 24, 2012 | 7:17 p.m. CDT

Todd Akin is still the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri.

Now what?

That's a question that should be pondered by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, and former Sens. John Ashcroft, Christopher "Kit" Bond and John C. Danforth. Those four men, the elder statesmen of the Missouri Republican Party, urged Mr. Akin to leave the race against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill in the aftermath of Mr. Akin's horribly wrong statement about what he called "legitimate rape."

The cynic would see their failed attempt to push Mr. Akin out of the race as pure political survival, separating their party from the albatross that Mr. Akin has become to save the rest of their statewide ticket.

Missourians, whatever their political persuasion, should hope there's more to it than that. These four men have records of leadership far different than the extremism of Mr. Akin and the demagoguery embodied by many others in their party today.

We hope that Mrs. Blunt, Ashcroft, Bond and Danforth have a serious desire to pull the Republican Party back from the brink of extremism and make it credible again.

Some Republicans would scoff at the idea that this page cares about a vibrant Republican Party. They'd be wrong.

Missouri's strongest days have been the result of a dynamic debate between center-left Democrats and center-right Republicans who cared deeply about the future of the Show-Me State. They were able to find common ground on the important issues of the day. During the gubernatorial terms of Mr. Bond and Mr. Ashcroft, Missouri built roads, spent money on education and invested in its future.

A struggling Missouri needs a return to those days.

That's why it's important that Mr. Blunt, as the sitting U.S. Senator, and the colleagues who preceded him continue discussing what they can do to bring the state's Republican Party back to a place where "compromise" isn't a dirty word.

They could start by all reading the speech Mr. Danforth gave to the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis on June 14. It was an eloquent call to arms for Republicans to return to the time when members of both parties spent time together socially, got to know each other's families, respected differing philosophies. It was a time, Mr. Danforth said, when the political center was "the place where decisions once were made."

Mr. Danforth knows what has happened in Missouri and the nation over the past few years. The Republican Party embraced a serious movement — the Tea Party — but then also gave cover to the most extreme parts of that movement to win votes.

They fomented phony anger at President Barack Obama. Mr. Blunt, a reasonable man, gave a nod to the "birthers" during his own campaign for the U.S. Senate. Other Republicans announced they would never raise taxes, ever.

This enabled extremists like Mr. Akin to move from the fringes of the party to the forefront. Now he's atop the Missouri fall ticket. No wonder the party's leaders are worried.

Their problem, though, is much bigger than Mr. Akin. As we have noted before, Mr. Danforth's words ring a bit hollow in light of his personal endorsement of one of the most extreme members of his party, Ed Martin. The St. Louis lawyer is the party's nominee for attorney general.

This is a man whose time as Gov. Matt Blunt's chief of staff proved he was unfit for office. He'll say anything to win and is running a campaign of pure hatred and dishonesty.

But he is coddled while Mr. Akin is jettisoned.

The problem for the Republican Party is going to get worse before it gets better. The combination of term limits and gerrymandered redistricting created seats that will tilt far to the right for years to come. Republicans easily control the state Legislature but can't produce a statewide candidate with the gravitas of a Mr. Danforth or Mr. Bond.

Let us remember, the incoming speaker of the Missouri House, Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, was an actual party to the original birther lawsuit against the president.

And Mr. Akin is the problem?

Each of the Missouri leaders who asked Mr. Akin to step down is aware that it would be impossible for someone with their relatively moderate records to win a Missouri primary today. Perhaps that's why Mr. Bond decided suddenly in 2009 not to seek re-election. He saw the writing on the wall that led to the devastating primary losses of Republican Senate lions like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Bob Bennett of Utah.

Mr. Bond helped bring Missouri, and the nation, the popular Parents as Teachers program. That could never happen today. Mr. Ashcroft championed tougher ethics laws. His party today won't touch them.

Mr. Danforth already led a Missouri Republican revival once before. His election as state attorney general in 1968 brought the party back from exile. It led directly to Mr. Bond's gubernatorial win four years later.

That Missouri Republican Party can hardly be seen today. As a U.S. senator, Mr. Danforth forged a lasting friendship with his Democratic rival, the late Sen. Tom Eagleton. Mr. Blunt and Ms. McCaskill, two political veterans who have a respect for compromise, could forge that same partnership on Missouri's behalf if only the political extremists would get out of the way.

In his June speech, Mr. Danforth spoke the truth about extremism in today's political world. It was alive and well long before Todd Akin became a national embarrassment. His words should become a meaningful part of an attempt to rebuild the American political center.

"What America desperately needs is another voice," Mr. Danforth said. "I'm not talking about another party. I'm talking about another voice, one that was once shared by many Democrats and many Republicans. You and I can help us find that voice. It's the voice of a political center that we must rebuild. It's the voice that must demand to be heard again. It's a voice that must shout to politicians of both parties. 'Enough of this! Get on with the work of government.'"

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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