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Who can save the GOP?

By Jules Witcover, Tribune Content Agency on

Editor's note: Clarence Page is away. Jules Witcover is filling in.

WASHINGTON -- The political carnage of the Alabama Senate race, in which Democrat Doug Jones upset President Donald Trump's candidate, Roy Moore, in an ultra-GOP state, humiliated the president and has left the Grand Old Party badly in need of a credible old-time establishment leader to take him on. But none is in sight.

Trump, in openly campaigning for the loser, an accused sexual predator of young girls, has tarnished the once-respected party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan.

So have the current GOP congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, in timidly embracing the Trump legislative agenda, including a widely disdained tax reform bill that would make the rich richer and practically everyone else poorer.

McConnell at least offered a nod of resistance to Moore's candidacy initially by suggesting that he withdraw, and indicating that if Moore won he would face a Senate vote to expel him. Among the few Republicans in Congress these days posing some resistance to Trump are Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, but eventually they will be leaving Capitol Hill in retirement.

Of others in their pliant willingness to pursue one success in Congress after nearly a full year of embarrassing failures, they have shelved their own good judgment on the tax reform bill. They have backed a bunch of proposals subject to no committee hearings as they would be under the "regular order" by which Congress customarily has done its business.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, hospitalized again with brain cancer, pleaded during the earlier failed Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare to slow down and follow that customary route. It was to no avail, then or now, in the rush to give Trump something, anything, to boast about.

In a ludicrously transparent White House parade of select family beneficiaries of the tax bill the other day, the president trotted them before television cameras to recite their gratitude to him. But no details were offered on how the bill itself would be paid for in dividing the spoils to be handed to them.

The 15 or so allegedly leading GOP presidential prospects who took on Trump in the 2016 party primaries folded like a deck of jokers then, leaving a barren stable of possible 2020 contenders. Of the bunch, only Gov. John Kasich of Ohio acquitted himself with a semblance of honor and plausible political or policy leadership and governing experience.

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The party thus appears at this juncture to face the possibility of more Trump division and chaos, with the best hope for relief in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into Russian collusion in the election that put Trump in the presidency.

The Alabama result dealt a severe blow to Trump's former chief strategist and ultra-nationalist provocateur, Steve Bannon, currently back to running the right-wing Breitbart News website. His open campaigning for Moore was a transparent bid to annihilate and replace the old Republican establishment. It challenged his reputation as a political genius and severely diminished his stature in the party, while Bannon apparently remained in the good graces of his onetime boss.

At the same time, the upset victory of Jones in Alabama may boost Democratic grassroots efforts for the party's House and Senate candidates in the midterm congressional elections next November. But the party of FDR, the Kennedys, the Clintons and Obama may not be in appreciably better shape than the GOP in terms of identifying leadership for the future.

Democratic turnout among African-Americans, white women and young voters rose appreciably for Jones, and the growing "#MeToo" movement of declared female victims of male sexual harassment has also revived the similar accusations against Trump himself, as his approval rating continues to slip.

The quest for a new credible leader thus faces both parties, in a period in which political dissatisfaction plagues them alike. Some Republicans may agree to take another look at Mitt Romney, their previous moderate losing standard-bearer. Some Democrats are musing about another try by former Vice President Joe Biden, despite his current age of 75.

The circumstances seem ready, however, for some fresh face in both major parties, with not much serious talk about whom that might be.

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(Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
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