Venerable conservative pundits and talk show hosts who have dominated the airwaves and op-ed pages of the Great Republic for the past three decades can continue to lament the departure of Ronald Reagan the way the ancient Egyptians once mourned for Osiris or the ancient Greeks the passing of the great god Pan, but he ain't coming back.
All the talk about so-called strategies for the future among Republicans has focused on "getting back to the essentials" that have defined conservative politics in the Republican Party for the past generation -- low taxes, free trade, minimum government, low interest rates and happily running up astronomical budget and international trade deficits on the assumption that there would never be a day of reckoning. But between the great Wall Street meltdown and President-elect Barack Obama's decisive national victory, it came.
Republican conservatives are fond of arguing that Obama is doomed to fail and that when he does, the American public will eagerly embrace the GOP in relief as it pitches its traditional message once again.
But this is a passive and even fantasy-world approach to political strategy. Obama and an awful lot of well-educated, ambitious and experienced people around him do not intend to fail. If they can stabilize the U.S. economy, significantly reduce the annual government budget deficits that George W. Bush ran up and bring down the potentially catastrophic annual trade deficits, the Dems could be running the country for many elections to come.
Much has been written about Obama's admiration for President John F. Kennedy. But it is more revealing to see Obama's intimacy with the tough, exceptionally successful Democratic machine politicians of his hometown, Chicago, as being an echo of President Franklin Roosevelt's mastery of Democratic machine politics in the late 1920s and 1930s.
If Obama can deliver major improvements in federal healthcare and education and clean up the appalling economic mess that Bush handed over to him, he and his successors could dominate U.S. national politics for the next 30 or even 40 years, as the heirs of FDR and Ronald Reagan did before them.
In that eventuality, the Republicans will have to come up with a lot more than fresh faces and brushed-off Reagan-era policies and rhetoric. They will have to craft a stand on immigration that will not alienate the vast majority of Hispanic voters, as the Bush-McCain GOP failed to do.
They will have to admit some taxes are necessary to balance the budget while paying for the vast array of federal and state-provided social and other services that the American public demands. And they will have to come up with convincing and literate policies on economic recovery and energy that they have certainly so far failed to do.
One obvious way for the GOP to go is to embrace a far more nationalist, populist message to woo working-class Americans. But this would mean abandoning the University of Chicago, neo-con, Reagan-era faith in free trade and outflanking the Democrats on protectionist issues. And with the exception of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, no other prominent Republican appears prepared to do that.
Huckabee, indeed, is one of only two figures in the current crop of GOP wannabe leaders who have shown the flexibility and sense of innovation to explore new directions that changing political and economic realities may require. The other is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the U.S. Constitution currently does not permit Schwarzenegger to run for the presidency because he was born outside the country.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been touted as the new conservative darling of the GOP. But she has surrounded herself with a neoconservative Old Guard and proved less than impressive on major international and economic issues during this campaign.
Palin may yet be able to reinvent herself as a populist Queen of the Grassroots, but she will need a very different set of advisers and mentors to do it. Right now, despite the hallelujahs of the conservative Old Guard who hailed her in vain, she appears to be not the second coming of Margaret Thatcher but rather a Republican version of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, D-N.Y., Walter Mondale's running mate in the ill-fated 1984 Democratic campaign.
Like Palin, Ferraro was a first-class local politician who sank like a stone when she was thrown suddenly into the deep end of the national political swimming pool.
It is quite common for political parties that have grown complacent, out of touch and ideologically rigid after too long in power to be forced to spend long years or even decades in the wilderness until they find a new way. The longer the effort to cling to old orthodoxies lasts, the longer and more painful will the years in the outer darkness be.
Republican conservatives should ponder those truths long and hard in the years that stretch ahead.