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The New York Eimes: Rersn's ‘4 Descendants «ony oo (Onder a reprint of tsar Does Anyone Have a Grip on the G.O.P.? By MATT BAI It wasn’t that long ago that Republican moneymen and operatives in Washington were moping around K Street like Eeyore in the Hundred Acre Wood, lamenting their party’s extremist image and casting about for a candidate with a chance of beating Barack Obama in 2012. Citing what he called the “near self-immolation” of House Republicans during the debt-ceiling fiasco, Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, worried in early August that a “large number of Republican primary voters, and even more independent general-election voters, will be wary of supporting a Republican candidate in 2012 if the party looks as if it’s in the grip of an infantile form of conservatism.” But a few months of obstinate unemployment can change a lot in Washington, and these days the mood inside the Republican establishment is, if not quite smug, then certainly relieved. In a slideshow widely circulated among Republicans in recent weeks, one of the party’s leading pollsters, Bill McInturff, noted that the consumer-confidence index (as measured by the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters), had fallen in August to a score of 55.7. No president, McInturff pointed out, has ever been re-elected with an index score lower than 75. Around this time in 1979, as Jimmy Carter, the modern standard setter for failed presidents, ‘was preparing to seek a second term, the index was at 64.5 Given such fast-deteriorating conditions, many Republican veterans have come around to the view that they aren't really going to need the perfect presidential candidate, and perhaps not, even a notably good one. With Chris Christie having taken himself out of the running — again — earlier this month, the field of candidates now appears to be pretty much set, and none of them are likely to inspire any reimaginings of Mount Rushmore. But maybe all the moment requires is someone who can pass as a broadly acceptable alternative — a candidate who doesn’t project the Tea Party extremism of Michele Bachmann or the radical isolationism of Ron Paul. “If we have a Rick Perry versus Mitt Romney battle for the nomination, it’s a little hard to say, ‘Ooh, the party has really gone off the rails,’ ” Kristol told me just after Perry entered the race, a development that essentially ended Bachmann's brief ascent. Establishment Republicans may prefer Romney to Perry, but their assumption is that either man can be counted on to steer the party back toward the broad center next fall, effectively disarming the Tea Party mutiny. If that’s the case, then it now seems like only a matter of time before the Republican empire, overwhelmed by insurrection for much of the last two years, strikes back at last. “I think it’s waning now,” Scott Reed, a veteran strategist and lobbyist, told me when we talked about the Tea Party’s influence last month, Efforts to gin up primaries next year against two sitting senators — Utah's Orrin Hatch and Indiana's Dick Lugar — have been slow to gain momentum, Reed said, and it’s notable that more than half of the 50-plus members of the Tea Party caucus in the House ultimately fell in line and voted with Speaker John Bochner on his debt-ceiling compromise. Party leaders have managed to bleed some of the anti-establishment intensity out of the movement, Reed said, by slyly embracing Tea Party sympathizers in Congress, rather than treating them as “those people.” Did he mean to say that the party was slowly co-opting the Tea Partiers? “Drying to,” Reed said. “And that’s the secret to politics: trying to control a segment of people without those people recognizing that you're trying to control them.” ‘As I made the rounds of Republican Washington in recent weeks and reflected on all this newfound optimism, though, I found myself recalling what Ken Mehlman, who managed George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004, liked to say back then: “Hope is not a strategy.” It’s not clear which of those two things — hope or strategy — the Republican establishment is really embracing. After all, in September, not long after I saw Reed, far-right Republicans staged another successful mutiny in the House, temporarily blocking a spending bill that Boehner had championed. Meanwhile, the “supercommittee” of lawmakers created by the debt-ceiling legislation is supposed to find more budget cuts by the end of the year, which means Washington faces another very public showdown, The deficit debate in Congress could easily dominate the campaign season, complicating the party's election-year message and making it hard for any nominee to unify pragmatic insiders and Tea Party outsiders, “What happens on this debt and deficit issue could split us,” Don Fierce told me when we met in his downtown Washington office. “This thing is volatile.” Fierce is a party strategist who worked in the Ford administration and for Lee Atwater during the Reagan years and then founded a lobbying firm whose clients include Apple and the Ford Motor Company. He was clearly worried that some of his oldest friends in Washington were failing to grasp the peril of the moment. “We have not disarmed the bomb,” he said. “Boehner reminds me of the lead in “The Hurt Locker.” Pull the wrong wire, and this whole thing could blow up. For our people to say, ‘Gee whiz, so far, so good, no problem — ’” Fierce shook his head emphatically. “Just wait,” he said. You can’t talk about the Republican establishment without trying to define what that really means, and this is something on which there is little consensus. Last month, I sat with Fred Malek in the Washington office of his private-equity firm. Malek, now 74, was in charge of fund- raising for his friend John McCain in 2008 and does the same job for the Republican Governors Association, He's the founder of the American Action Network, a two-year-old group whose goal is to make the party’s economie agenda palatable to mainstream Republicans and independents. Malek belongs to the Alfalfa Club, whose 200 or so members, the old-line political and business aristocracy in both parties, expect the president to attend their annual dinner, and he occasionally gives exclusive parties at his home overlooking the Potomac River in McLean, Va. — including one in 2009 that brought together Sarah Palin and the party’s Washington elite. “You think I’m an establishment Republican?” Malek asked me. When I said that I did, he let forth a lyrical string of expletives that, sadly, are not printable here. “My dad drove a beer truck delivering beer to taverns in Cicero and Chicago, Tll,” he said. “['m the first one in my family to go to college. No, I don’t consider myself part of the establishment.” I then followed his gaze to the photos on his wall: Malek in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon, Malek with Ronald Reagan, Malek with George H. W. Bush after the two jumped from a plane on the former president's 8oth birthday “[’m looking for pictures on my wall to prove I’m not establishment,” Malek said. T suggested he might need to find another wall, and Malek laughed in surrender. George Will recently said there is no such thing as the Republican establishment, which is a little like Michael Douglas saying there’s no such thing as Hollywood. But Will's point, shared by a lot of other longtime Republicans I spoke with, is that the real establishment, the league of Protestant lawyers and bankers from the Northeast and Midwest who once exercised enormous influence, was smashed in 1964 when Barry Goldwater, acting as the advance guard for a new breed of ideological conservatives from the West and South, wrested the nomination from Nelson Rockefeller. (Among Goldwater's most vocal G.O.P. opponents at that time was a liberal Midwestern governor named George Romney.) Since then, this argument goes, the idea of any singular establishment has been little more than a convenient media conceit. It’s a fair point, but it may be just as accurate to say that the establishment has simply evolved over the years to accommodate more regional and cultural diversity, making it less monolithic but still ideologically cohesive. The pragmatic “white shoe” lawyers of the Nixon-Rockefeller era were largely stamped out over the ensuing decades by more conservative Reaganites from the ‘West Coast and Bush backers from Texas, by movement conservatives whose constituents