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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Democrats did a lot of soul searching after they were beaten in 2004, so it's fair to expect the same of Republicans now. And one of the Republicans who may be ready with some ideas is Ross Douthat. He's senior editor of The Atlantic magazine, and he's co-author of "Grand New Party," a book that proposed changes even before this election. He's in our studios. Welcome.

Mr. ROSS DOUTHAT (Senior Editor, The Atlantic; Co-Author, "Grand New Party"): Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about a thing that Republicans have said all year. Tough year, tough environment, tough way to win. Can we set all that aside for a second and let me just ask this as a yes/no question. Did your party just deserve to be dropped on Tuesday?

Mr. DOUTHAT: It's a yes/no question?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

Mr. DOUTHAT: I think the answer is yes in the sense that this was an election in the aftermath of what is perceived as a failed presidency. Not only a failed presidency, but really the most unpopular president since Harry Truman, and possibly before. And I think given that landscape alone, you know, the word deserve is sort of a tough word to use, but I would say this was an election that it was always going to be incredibly difficult for Republicans to win. And they didn't do enough to prove that they deserved to win in a year that lots of people had good reasons to vote for the other party.

INSKEEP: OK. So if you're a Republican, let's think about what kind of a coalition or set of issues might work for you in the future.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Well, I think the challenge for the GOP is really the same challenge it faced in the Reagan era, which is to say what are the challenges facing middle and working-class Americans, and are there conservative solutions to those challenges? Are there answers that are consonant with conservative principles of free market, small government, family values, and so on? And I think the answer in the Reagan era was, look, the challenges facing the middle class are high taxes, stagflation, skyrocketing crime rates that make the streets and cities unsafe, and a perception that the welfare bureaucracy is taking money from the middle class and using it on programs that actually make the problem worse. And the Republicans had answers to all those questions.

INSKEEP: Ronald Reagan either acted on those issues or gave the impression that he cared about them.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Well, he gave the impression that he did. And conservatives in the 1990s followed up on a lot of those fronts. Flash forward to the early 2000s, and the challenges facing the middle class, you saw it in this election. There are challenges like skyrocketing health care costs, challenges like inequality, a perception that - you know the working class in America isn't getting poorer, but there's a sense that the American dream, the idea that your kids are going to be able to move up and do better, that's slipping out of reach.

So those are the challenges that conservatives have to address themselves to instead of just changing the subject. And the tendency is always, let's change the subject to national security because we still have an advantage on that front, or lets change the subject and talk about how the Democrats are going to raise your taxes. And you saw it in the health care debate. I think John McCain actually had a pretty interesting health care plan, but conservatives aren't comfortable arguing on health care. And Republicans were like, well, we have a good health care plan, but let's talk about Joe the Plumber instead. And that's not going to win them any elections.

INSKEEP: OK. So given that it was a disaster for Republicans on Tuesday, was there any Republican running, somebody who won a race, or held onto his seat, or even lost, but was delivering a message that you think could resonate for Republicans in the future?

Mr. DOUTHAT: I mean, the answer is he wasn't on the ballot. The answer Republicans always give when they're asked about the future of the party these days is Bobby Jindal in Louisiana.

INSKEEP: The governor of Louisiana.

Mr. DOUTHAT: The governor of Louisiana because, you know, there is someone who has gone in essentially on a reformed government program and is immensely popular and immensely intelligent and immensely interested in policy. And I think the challenge for Republicans now after the Bush era and after the McCain campaign is to regain their reputation for being good at policy and interested in policy. And that's something that's been lost over the past eight years.

I don't think there's any one Republican politician who completely gets it. But I think that we're also, you know, only about six months to a year into this whither conservatism kind of debate. And I think it takes a while for politicians to sort of glom onto new ideas. I think, you know, there is a sense that the way Republicans had run, had worked for 30 years, you wouldn't expect them to just change on my say so, for instance.

INSKEEP: Ross Douthat of The Atlantic and co-author of "Grand New Party," thanks very much.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Thanks so much for having me.

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