NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Six months from Election Day, many Republicans are beginning to worry about stinging, maybe even historic, losses come November. The political mathematics includes an unpopular president, an unpopular war and a dismal economy. Plus dozens of Republican incumbents decided to retire from Congress this year, which makes those seats much more difficult to retain.

Last week in Mississippi, Republicans lost a congressional seat in a district that President Bush carried handily four years ago. That followed similar results in once-safe seats in Illinois and Louisiana, and the news looks just as gloomy on the Senate side. Many Republicans, beginning with John McCain, are having trouble raising as much money as their opponents. Just a few years after Carl Rove talked about a permanent majority, Republicans debate the future of a party that some say has lost its way.

So Republicans, what's wrong and how do you fix it? Again, we want to hear from our Republican listeners today. Our phone number, 800-998-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later in the program, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is on the Opinion Page this week. There's a debate over how we portray our heroes.

But first, how much trouble is the Republican Party in? And where does it go from here? And we begin with Representative Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee's seventh district. She joins us on the line from Nashville, Tennessee. And it's very nice of you to be with us today.

Representative MARSHA BLACKBURN (Republican, Tennessee): It's so good to be with you. Thank you.

CONAN: And after the results last week, do you share the alarm of some in your party?

Rep. BLACKBURN: Well, I'm one of those that have felt for quite awhile that we were off the track, and as I have said repeatedly since the '06 elections, we lost because we lost our way. And what Republicans, I think, what part of our leadership had a tendency to do was, instead of focusing on ideas, they were focused on pork, perks and privilege. And what we know is that the American people wanted to see us focus on lower taxes, less regulation, individual freedom and strong defense, and making certain that government worked in the manner it's supposed to work for the people.

CONAN: And so how does the party refocus and organize on those principals?

Rep. BLACKBURN: I think this is the perfect time for the party to say, we are going back to our core principals, and begin to move forward from there. I think it's imperative. People - when I talk to my constituents, they are very concerned about high gas prices. They're concerned about the lack of action that they see coming out from Congress. It is not a surprise that this Congress and the leadership in this Congress would have an 18-percent approval rating.

They're concerned about the high price of food. They are concerned that they see bickering and squabbling among leaders, but no real action on the things that are affecting them, their families and their pocketbook every single day. They want to know that we are going to continue to reduce taxes, or that we will continue to allow the '01 and '03 reductions that were put in place. So many of my constituents are very fearful that - and very concerned that we are going to see marginal rates go up.

If the leadership has its way, if the Democrat leadership has its way and passes this 683-billion-dollar tax bill, over the next five years, you will see marginal rates go up. You are going to see the child tax credit cut in half. You are going to see a loss of many of our small-business deductions. You are going - for my constituents in the seventh district of Tennessee, it would equal an annual tax increase of 2,668 dollars, and people are very concerned about that, because we are with high gas prices, high food prices and cost of living going up.

CONAN: Yet, there's also a credibility problem. The party has long stood for smaller government and lower taxes and, well, you mentioned lower taxes, but under the past two Republican presidents, the government has grown and particularly under this one.

Rep. BLACKBURN: Well, you're correct about that, and that's one of those items where we moved away from our core principals, and the government, the size of the bureaucracy did increase, and government spending increased. Those are things - I think, you know, you almost have to go back to the very beginning on this, and say, where did the wheels start to come off of this message? And when there was the House, the White House, and the Senate, supposedly taxes were going to come down even more than they did with the '01 and '03 reductions.

We were going to roll back some regulations, so that the EPA, the IRS, OSHA, some of these agencies would not be as invasive and obtrusive in individual lives, and that didn't happen. Instead, they saw government grow. Our constituents want to see more accountability in government, and while there was more accountability, in the Republican administration than in previous Democrat administrations, there was not enough accountability, and the same goes for the size of government.

Government may have grown less than it had under a Democrat administration, but the point was you didn't flatline that growth, you didn't decrease the rate of increase in that growth. The rate of increase stayed fairly close to the same, maybe a little bit less, but not noticeably less to make the kind of difference that people were wanting to see made. Now some of us, on the conservative end of the spectrum, have a tendency to bring forward and continue to bring forward bills.

I have legislation that would have reduced - would have done across-the-board cuts that would be either one-percent, two-percent or five-percent across-the-board reductions to help get spending under control. And certainly in the Deficit Reduction Act that was passed under Republican leadership in 2006, what we did was to make a one-percent across-the-board reduction in discretionary, non-defense, non-homeland security spending. That's a first step...

CONAN: Well, let's get some...

Rep. BLACKBURN: But the other steps didn't follow.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation. Again, we are asking for Republicans to join us today. Our guest at the moment is Marsha Blackburn, Republican from Tennessee's seventh district. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255 and let's talk with Jackie, Jackie's with us from Miami in Florida.

JACKIE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi there.

JACKIE: My comment is - I am a Republican, because I do believe in smaller government and less taxes and a general belief in people's abilities to do for themselves, not a welfare state, but I don't know when the Republican Party became the religious right. Those are not my beliefs, and I don't know why if - the current Republican nominee for the presidential nomination is constantly being accused of not appealing to the religious right and I don't believe that is what the Republican Party stands for.

CONAN: Well, Congresswoman, do you think that the religious right, going back to Ronald Reagan's coalition, has been an important element of the Republican Party victories.

Rep. BLACKBURN: You're always going to have the different groups and different tags that are put in place, and social conservatives are certainly an important part of the Republican coalition. But Jackie is saying something that we many times will hear from fiscal conservatives, and from social conservatives, too, I'll add. But what people want to see is, where's the action? They want to us to solve some of the problems, and certainly in the past, Republicans were known for kind of rolling their sleeves up and getting to work and solving these problems, getting to the root cause, not throwing money at the problem, not growing the bureaucracy, to try to find an answer.

CONAN: Are you telling us that government is part of the solution?

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Rep. BLACKBURN: I know, I'm telling you that government's part of the problem, and the solutions are going to come from individuals that come from all walks of life and come to Congress and put those skills to work. And that is what our constituents want to see more of. They want to see less of putting more money at it. They want to see less of trying to have government grow a new agency to solve a problem.

Great example of that is Katrina. They want - they said time out here. You know, it looks like Homeland Security as one great big agency didn't work very well. You people need to go back and you need to revisit this. And I heard that from constituents time and time again, that maybe that didn't work the way it did, and there was some fast oversight of how Homeland Security had worked.

CONAN: But back to Jackie's point, is the party too religious?

Rep. BLACKBURN: I don't think the party is too religious. No, I don't. I think social conservatives are an incredibly important part of the party, just as those that are fiscal conservatives, but on both fronts, what people want to see is more action, attention to problems, and solving those problems, solving the problems of the federal government growing its bureaucracy, taking your privacy, taking more of your paycheck, and at the end of the month, you have more month left over, and a little bit too less money at the end of that month. They want more money in their paycheck. They want more time. We hear from women, we want more time at the end of the day, roll back regulation so that we have more time, and less intrusiveness in our lives from the government.

CONAN: Jackie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JACKIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Congresswoman Blackburn, thank you for your time today.

Rep. BLACKBURN: Thank you. Enjoyed being with you.

CONAN: Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, with us by phone from Nashville. Let me introduce our next two guests now. They are Matthew Continetti, staff writer for the Weekly Standard. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Staff Writer, Weekly Standard): Thank you.

CONAN: And also with us Vin Weber, former Republican member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota. Now a republican strategist and lobbyist, also with us here in 3A. Vin, good to see you again.

Former Representative VIN WEBER (Republican, Minnesota; Managing Partner, Clark & Weinstock): Great to be here again, Neal.

CONAN: And you just heard, well, Congresswoman Blackburn's prescription, return to the party of, well, lower taxes and smaller government. Is that a solution for the Republican Party, Vin Weber?

Rep. WEBER: Well, I think that 's part of the solution. I certainly agree with the thrust of what she said, and I think that's going to be a great debate in this campaign, because you have a clearer distinction between the candidates on those issues than we've had in the past, and we can talk about that a little bit later. But I do think that Republicans, thinking forward, have to go a little bit beyond that.

The country has come to accept that government's going to have a role in a whole bunch of things that, you know, my father, and certainly my grandfather, would have thought were none of the business of the government. But today, we're not going to say the government's not going to do anything in the field of healthcare for senior citizens. We're not going to say the government is going to get out entirely of the education business.

So what the country is looking for from Republicans is, how do you reform the government's approach to those problems, consistent with a set of values that I would describe as being fairly conservative, decentralization, market orientation, and individual choice? As long as Republicans understand that they've got to approach those issues from a reform perspective, they can make progress.

CONAN: Matt Continetti, we'll start with when we get back from a break. Stay with us, please. We're talking about Republicans today, and how the party reassesses its strategy after some troubling losses in congressional special elections. If you're a Republican and you have some ideas, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation and I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Republicans haven't had much to celebrate of late. After the loss of seats in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, congressional seats once solidly in the banks of the Republican Party, the future does not look that rosy, with an unpopular war, gas prices high and a tough economy.

We're talking with Matthew Continetti, a staff writer at the Weekly Standard, and Republican strategist and lobbyist, Vin Weber. If you're a Republican voter, what do you think the party needs to do to turn it around? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org, and you can read what other listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Matt Continetti, I wanted to give you a chance. How alarming does it look? And what do the Republicans need to do now?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, it's certainly alarming. I mean, everyone understands in climate of an unpopular war, and unpopular economy, one that's heading toward a recession, if not there already, and with an unpopular president, the GOP is in trouble. I would add to some of the things we've heard already, one major issue is leadership.

And that is, you have the sense among Republicans on Capitol Hill that they want to break from Bush, but they don't know where to go. And John McCain offers, I think, an appealing Republicanism to voters, but not one - because it's so based on his personality, not one that is kind of an ideological and unifying vision for the party as a whole. So there's a lack of leadership. They don't have Bush, they don't really have McCain, and they certainly don't have Gingrich or Reagan.

CONAN: There was also a time - well, much of the past 30 years, Vin Weber, when anybody, well, certainly in the Republican Party said, we're the party of ideas. We have the ideological fervor on our side. We know what we stand for. We're out to get it. That has somewhat dissipated over the past four years.

Rep. WEBER: Well the liberal era, or the big government era, status era, or whatever you want to call it, had run its course. And Ronald Reagan came along and the ideas were, how do we, sort of, unravel some of the problems that have been created by the excesses of big government? And part of the problem Republicans face is that they've solved some of those problems, and we have a lot of voters today that don't remember that.

For instance, you know, I first ran for Congress in 1980. Everybody remembered very clearly the gas lines of the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan said, you know, we need to deregulate in order to solve the gas-line problem. Well, nobody remembers that, or not - you have to be a little bit older to remember that today. That was a real instructive lesson in the problems with government regulation much broader than just the issue of energy policy.

Furthermore, we'd gone through 10 years or more of high inflation, pushing everybody into higher and higher tax brackets against the top bracket of 70 percent. Well, we've reduced taxes at their low point, down to a top bracket of 28 percent, somewhat higher than that now. But some of our problems are caused by our own successes, and it's harder to think of the next agenda for conservatives.

CONAN: And there's some critics who would say the Democrats say the same thing. They're just running against something, not necessarily for something. But that remains to be seen, and that's the other party, in any case. In the Republican Party, well, there are stark divisions in the Republican Party. There are on the other side, too. But again, that's an issue for another day. How does John McCain, and the party in general, recover this idea that we have solutions, we have an idea, and we're united in pursuit of it?

Mr. CONTINETTI: He's - McCain has started to give speeches. In April, he gave a very good speech on healthcare reform, for example, articulating a conservative approach decoupling healthcare and health insurance from employment, making it portable, more competitive, and driving down costs through the market instead of imposing government control from above.

It would, I think, behoove a lot of Republican congressmen to read that speech and to start echoing those points when they're on the trail. The ideas are out there, they're starting to be formed here in Washington, and now it's just a question of when Republican leaders will start picking up these ideas and running with them.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the line. This is Bob, Bob's with us Cleveland in Ohio.

BOB (Caller): Hi. The thing that's really disappointed me about the Republicans is the way they've treated Veterans and wounded soldiers. I mean, I would think - I'm a Republican, and one of the things I - I'm an ex-military. I identify the Republican Party, well, I used to, with looking after veterans. But you had the Walter Reed scandal, and now you have the - it seems the only ones against the new GI Bill in the Congress are the Republicans, and you know, just the way veterans have been treated like dogs by the Republicans. It's - I don't know - I don't understand what's going on in the party.

CONAN: Vin Weber, certainly the new GI Bill has come under criticism from a lot of Republicans for excessive spending.

Rep. WEBER: Well, it became part of the broader spending question, and the fact is if you want to reduce spending, you're going to vote against something that's popular. We found that with the Farm Bill that's going to the president now, too, and that's popular in rural areas of the country. It's not popular - it's not possible to cut government spending without cutting something that people think is popular.

But let me just say, I have to argue a little bit with the caller. I know there's been a lot of attention, properly, paid to the plight of our veterans, particularly coming back from combat, and there are always cases of abuse and neglect that we need to focus on. But I think that the actual statistical record would show that veterans have been treated pretty well coming back - in measurable terms, in terms of survival rates from people with injuries, things that used to kill and permanently disable veterans, are being dealt with really pretty well currently.

Largely - this is not a partisan issue. It's technology and things like that. The Walter Reed problem, of course Walter Reed is not a veterans' hospital. It's an Army hospital, and it needs to be dealt with in the context of reform of our military institutions.

CONAN: There were plenty of complaints about the Veterans Administration, too, and also about the way mental health cases are being treated in the military.

Rep. WEBER: And we have - and I think some of that is real, Neal, but I also think some of it is just the fact that we've managed to elevate the awareness of these concerns to a higher level than in the past. That's not to say that we shouldn't deal with them. It is simply to say - I'm not sure that there's any - that it's true that veterans are being more poorly treated today than of my generation when they came out of Vietnam, when we had huge problems with our veterans population, o than past generations.

CONAN: Bob, thanks for your call.

BOB: I'll tell you something. I think that's the attitude that just turns off Republicans like me, like, well, oh well, you know, there's problems, they outlived it.

Rep. WEBER: Well, that's not what I said. I...

BOB: What did you say? Listen to yourself.

Rep. WEBER: I said, I don't think you're right. I said if you actually look at the facts, you find that our veterans have - by every measurable standard...

BOB: There's 600,000 log of disability claims that aren't being taken care of. What, you know, if you lose your ability, your millstone, as the Bible says, and you take it away from a man, and then you don't replace it, I mean, look at the suicide rate of these Veterans? And they're not getting the mental health, and you're just blase-ing (ph) it over.

Rep. WEBER: No, I'm not blase-ing it over.

BOB: Well, listen to your comments.

Rep. WEBER: I think it's a more complicated issue than that.

BOB: Listen to your comments.

CONAN: OK, Bob, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Shell, Shell's with us from South Dakota.

SHELL (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

SHELL: I guess my comment is I'm a younger voter, and I have been registered as everything, but I'm currently registered as a Republican. And you know, for me, the social/fiscal conservative is a huge issue, getting back to that, and I was really attracted to Newt. I wish he'd run, if we could get over some of the baggage from the '90s. But I think the ideas, getting back to the ideas is important. But I also think, you know, the war, the party ought to get away from the war, and just admit Afghanistan fit under a Just War Theory. Iraq doesn't, and didn't.

And I think for younger voters, hearing some honesty from Republicans would help. I mean, I'm pro-life, but that includes the war and the death penalty for me, and also abortion. And a good idea would be that the government isn't always the answer to those issues, and that would be a very conservative. So I'm a conservative, but I don't fit in where that - what that means right now in the Republican Party because it's not a big enough tent, as far as conservatives go.

So I guess I'd like to see some change there, and some real leadership, and just admit, you know, we've screwed this thing up, and find - I guess I agree with one of the commenters about finding somebody - a good alternative leader for those that are socially and fiscally conservative. Because I think there's a lot of people that would register with that, but the party needs to buck up, and go there, and ask tough questions, and say pro-life also includes things like unjust war.

CONAN: Matt Continetti, you talked about trying to, well, get some distance from an unpopular president. Senator McCain seems to be very supportive of the war policy. Is the Republican Party going to change that?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, the moment that the Republicans had the opportunity to run away from the Iraq War and from Bush was last summer. And that was when, really, the war was reaching its nadir in terms of the popularity, no one was really sure whether the surge was producing the desired results or not.

But the Republicans held firm and did not abandon Bush, and so the surge was allowed to continue, and has produced quite drastic results, not only in terms of military progress on the ground, but also now we're beginning to see political progress at the national level, something we had not seen for years. As a consequence, though, the war is less likely to be a major issue in this election then many may think. I think the economy will dominate.

And what we hear from a lot of callers is government failure. Whether it's government failures of the Veterans' Administration or whether it's government failure in terms of spending, it's very difficult for conservatives and Republicans to make an argument against government failure when they've been in charge of the government.

So now, the way to address that, though, is by adopting a message of reform, something that Vin mentioned earlier. If they've got around this message of reform of public institutions and a return to conservative governance, which is possible - Reagan showed it was possible, Gingrich showed it was possible - if they return to that, I think they would have a winning message.

CONAN: Well, those were almost insurgent campaigns, Vin Weber, Ronald Reagan, the brushfire, prairie fires and that sort of thing, and certainly Newt Gingrich was.

Rep. WEBER: Absolutely, but it's possible now, even more than that. Most of the institutions of government that we have, as Matthew just pointed out, have not been subject to reform. Republicans have made some very big changes in tax policy and defense policy and things like that, but we still have bureaucracy after bureaucracy after bureaucracy that were put in place basically in the era of unqualified support for big government, and they need to be reformed right now.

Republicans need to grab on to that agenda. You know, one of the things that Newt Gingrich, for instance, talks about now that I think actually touches people's lives pretty closely is reform of transportation policy. Now, people - is there a more frustrated group of people than airline travelers today in the country?

CONAN: And some people say, hey, there's your deregulation for you.

Rep. WEBER: Yeah, well, that's, you know, a possibility, but we have regulation of the airlines. The question is...

CONAN: A lot less than before.

Rep. WEBER: I agree with that at one level. Regulation of the way that the airlines actually treat their customers is not necessarily less than it used to be. Competition between the airline carriers, of course, is less regulated than it ever used to be. But there's all sorts of regulations that lead to long lines, long waits, and things like that at airports that could be made much more customer friendly if we had a reform of the FAA and the Transportation Safety Administration.

CONAN: Shell, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SHELL: OK.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jay in Vermont. As a Rockefeller-Eisenhower Republican, my question is, how does the current Republican Party plan on paying off the massive government debt that's been run up during the Bush years? And I do not believe we can simply grow our way out of it. Instead, it seems we need to either raise taxes or cut government programs. If you're going to have smaller government and lower taxes, presumably you have to cut spending a whole lot. Earlier, Vin Weber was saying that you have to cut popular programs. Do you agree, Matt Continetti?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Sure. Of course, that emailer is probably one of the few remaining Rockefeller Republicans left. There aren't many. They've been a dying breed over the past two decades. And of course, look who's the Republican nominee? Can you find a more persistent critic of government spending and wasteful spending than John McCain?

And look then at the congressional Republicans who have not followed McCain's lead. They have been unable to get behind an earmark ban, for example. They voted for this farm bill which was laden with subsidies and pork and which only exacerbates our energy price issues and our food shortage issues in the global context.

So, you know, McCain is there talking about these issues and has a bridge, I think, between kind of the supply-side wing of the party, which says that economic growth is important, and kind of the Concord Coalition wing of the party, which is no, you've got to reduce the deficit. And so his programs are a mishmash of that, but that means that there is something for everyone, if only people got around him.

Rep. WEBER: There shouldn't be a conflict, though, there, Neal. The caller, for instance, says he doesn't believe that we can grow out of the deficits. Fair enough. A lot of people don't believe that necessarily. But certainly everybody, at least on the Republican side, should understand and agree that you can't let the economy fall into recession or a prolonged period of low growth.

Whether you believe we can grow out of deficits or not, it's irrefutable that a slowdown and recession in the economy will only increase deficits and increase government spending. So there's not really a conflict there, if you have a policy that both focuses on pro-growth, tax-regulatory trade policies and restraining the growth of spending, particularly over the long term.

CONAN: And the deficit?

Rep. WEBER: Yeah, I think that's how you do it. You maintain growth in the economy and you restrain the growth of spending. Long term, it's got to be a restraint on the growth of healthcare spending. There's just no way of dealing with this in the long term if you don't deal with that.

CONAN: Former Congressman and now lobbyist Vin Weber, and also with us, Matt Continetti of the Weekly Standard. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Jim on the line, Jim's with us from Louisville in Kentucky.

JIM (Caller): Hello, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

JIM: I just wanted to comment that with everything that has gone on in the past seven or eight years, it might be a good idea or a good thing that we lose this election this year and focus on getting back to what the party is all about. And it's about people, and it's gotten mixed up with so many different things, such as the religious right and every sort of issue that's a nonissue, like gay marriage and immigration and everything that to - that can distract us from the real goal, which is to take care of people in a responsible manner. Now, I've been a Republican for 22 years, I'm 40 years old, and I'm just embarrassed with my party.

CONAN: Is 1964 the solution, Matt Continetti? A wipeout?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, I mean, as a conservative, I would hope it's not the solution, because the alternative is even worse, in terms of desired public-policy outcomes.

CONAN: In the long run, this might be a good thing for the party.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, I mean, I think the rethinking has already begun. 2006 was a horrible election for Republicans, and now we have a host of new books, whether it's from David Frum, or whether two younger writers, Ross Duff (ph) and Ryan Hansellam (ph), long essays by the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Yuval Levin, rethinking these issues. The question is, to return to this old hobby horse of mine, who is going to pick them up and unify the party? So many of the callers have talked about the religious right and the rise of the religious right.

The religious right was there in the 1980s. Jerry Falwell supported Ronald Reagan. In fact, those values voters were key to Reagan's victories. But no one singled out the religious right in the 1980s as kind of this, you know, the bete noire, you know, that's riding the Republican Party to its doom. And the reason is that on top of the religious right or the neoconservatives or the libertarians or any of these other ideological subgroups was a unifying leader who had a vision of where he would take the entire country, not just one sub-sect of the conservative movement.

CONAN: And Vin Weber, is a lost election, some years in the wilderness, perhaps, the appropriate solution for the Republicans to find their way?

Rep. WEBER: No, I hear that argument a lot and I understand that there's some attractiveness to it, but particularly right now, there are big, big issues that are going to be resolved over the next couple of years, and we have such a stark difference developing between Senator Obama and Senator McCain that I think we'd pay a very heavy price.

You know, we talked a few minutes ago about Iraq. Regardless of whether people supported getting into Iraq or not, I truly believe in my heart and in my head that if we withdraw in the way Senator Obama is indicating he will, it will lead to a huge disaster in that region of the world. And I also believe the global War on Terror needs to be prosecuted in a way that keeps Americans safe. I think we could make a mistake there that would leave our country vulnerable.

I also think that at precisely the moment when our economy is very shaky, as it is now - there's no question it's shaky - to do what the Democrats want to do, which is to massively raise taxes and engage in serious trade protectionism, is a recipe for economic disaster as well. So I can't - my short term is overruling my long term. I don't think we can afford a Democrat government.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. We'll continue to take your calls with Matt Continetti and Vin Weber in just a moment. We'll also go to the Opinion Page and discuss a new statue of Martin Luther King Jr. How should we portray our heroes? I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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CONAN: Today, we're taking a closer look at the Republican Party, short and long-term, that after a recent string of defeats. Our guests are Matthew Continetti, a staff writer at the Weekly Standard, and Republican strategist and lobbyist Vin Weber. We want to hear from Republicans listening, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. In just a few minutes, we'll go to the Opinion Page, but first let's see if we can get Mary on the line. Mary's calling us from Sonoma in California.

MARY (Caller): Hi, good afternoon and thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARY: I'm a 47-year-old automobile dealer in California, life-long Republican, and I am so disgusted with what's going on with our party and with the candidate we've put forth this year. Unless he puts Mitt Romney on the ticket or Condoleezza Rice, I might stay home. But the reasons why I believe our party has gotten so far away from our basic ideals is, number one, first and foremost, immigration.

If - John McCain reached across the aisle to the likes of Ted Kennedy, for God's sake, and has completely been a party to thwarting getting tough on our borders. And you look at the recent raid in Iowa this past week, where ten percent of a population of a town taking jobs at a local meat-processing plant were illegal immigrants. It's a situation that has gotten out of hand, and so many Americans are sick and tired of nobody in Congress, especially the Republican Party, doing something about it.

Additionally, talking about setting up a black hole, the largest entitlement program this country ever be faced with, and that is universal healthcare, would be a financial disaster for this country. It's something that McCain needs to very speak clearly to in order to make us core Republicans more comfortable with voting for him, that that's going to stay privatized.

And also, what has happened to the Republican Party's ideals about individual ruggedness? You know, the Ayn Rand, the "Atlas Shrugged" ideals about lower government, smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation. All of these are the core values that conservatives and Republicans want in this country, and they're what built this country in its industrial age. And if we don't get back to it, we're - this economy is going to go down the tubes.

CONAN: Let's get a response from our guests. Vin Weber, immigration is an issue about which many Americans are extremely concerned. It is not an issue that John McCain has - well, as the caller suggests, he tried to reach across the aisle and work with the president and with the Democrats to reform immigration, not what this caller particularly wanted to hear.

Rep. WEBER: I understand that, and by the way, the caller mentioned or said something nice about Governor Romney. I should say I was a supporter of Governor Romney for the nomination. I'd love to see him on the ticket. Senator McCain did move his position on immigration in the course of the campaign, and he was very upfront. He went out and listened to people and said, I get the message, and he has a tough view enforcement point of view on immigration law today.

I think one of the things that the caller said that I think is particularly important, though, and I hope Republicans follow this advice, is we really need the debate on healthcare that she was talking about. Healthcare is a huge domestic issue. The Democrats are determined to move it in one direction, but it would snuff out a whole lot of individual choice for people around the country, and that's a good debate for us to have, as we go forward as a country. I happen to think that Senator McCain is well-positioned to talk about all of these issues, and particularly the last thing the caller talked about, when you talk about personal responsibility, which should be a part of Republicans values' appeal.

Who has exercised greater personal responsibility in his life than John McCain? His life story is sort of a testimonial to that, and I actually think - I hope the caller comes around before Election Day. She sounds like she's on my wavelength on most things. I can understand some frustrations, but I think that - listen to Senator McCain, watch him. I think he's going to articulate the kind of point of view that she wants to hear.

CONAN: But Matt Continetti, I think a lot of what Mary was having to say goes back to your issue about leadership.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Mm hm. Well, it's funny. What's striking about Mary's call is that, since the primaries ended, on the Republican side, of course, you haven't heard about immigration, and it seems as though this immigration issue, which motivates so many voters, in particular on the right, will not be present as, I think, a major election issue in the fall, and that's primarily because of McCain, even though as Vince suggests, he has moved his position rightward on that, which is a shame, because it could be part of, again, a reformist impulse.

We saw - with President Bush, we saw, I think, a true desire to reform the institutions of government, but not often the carry through on all of them, the follow through. You know, for example, take tax policy. You had the initial, first-term tax cuts, but then an inability or an unwillingness or - to make them permanent in the second term.

On immigration, there the story is a little bit different. It wasn't for lack of trying that Bush failed to reform our immigration laws, but it was because of an inability to really get the right wing of his party behind him. So the job for the next president, especially if it's John McCain, is in order to build on this reformist impulse that we saw in Bush, but not always the fruits of that impulse in Bush.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we're going to have to leave it there. Obviously, we're going to get back to this conversation before the year is out, but thank you, gentlemen, both very much for being with us today.

Mr. WEBER: Thank you, Neal.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you.

CONAN: Vin Weber here in Studio 3A, a former Republican member of the House of Representatives from the state of Minnesota, now a strategist and a lobbyist here in Washington, D.C., Matthew Continetti, a staff writer for the Weekly Standard. He was - and both of them were with us here in Studio 3A. And we come back, the Opinion Page.

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