I thought this Tom Toles cartoon did a particularly good job of capturing the Republican Party's strategy. I thought of it again when I read this item from the Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti:
The administration would like the voting public to believe that the GOP is outside the mainstream. Co-opting centrist Republicans like Huntsman reinforces that notion. But the problem with this argument is that what is "mainstream" changes over time. As unpopular as the Republican party is at the moment, it is actually winning a lot of the debates in Washington. Cap-and-trade has little chance of passing, health care is just as dicey, Americans are concerned about Obama's reckless accumulation of national debt, Nancy Pelosi is playing defense for the first time in her speakership, and the president has reversed himself on military commissions, abuse photos, and preventive detention. Victory or near-victory in these policy battles hasn't redounded to the GOP's benefit because the public still associates the Republican party with George W. Bush's failed second term, specifically the years 2005-2006 and the recession that began in December 2007.
It takes a while for the public to catch up. When they do - and it may not happen until 2016 - they'll go looking for someone who, in all likelihood, opposed the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and ObamaCare.
It's amazing how confident Republicans are in their belief that Obama's agenda will become unpopular. Continetti, for one, does not even consider the possibility that it won't. (His worst case scenario is that obama's agenda becomes unpopular by 2016.) I understand that conservatives think his agenda is substantively bad. But it's just amusing that they can't even imagine that it will become popular.
The two main factors here are the programs themselves and the state of the economy. Middle-class entitlements usually become popular. When Social Security and Medicare were proposed, conservatives painted them as a form of socialism, communism, or the end of freedom in America, but they became wildly popular after being enacted, and no Republican dares openly challenge their existence. Health care reform will probably follow the same path. That's a big reason why Republicans are so insistent on stopping it. If they think it will be a political albatross for Democrats, why not let it pass, then ride the political backlash and vote it out of existence?
The economy, of course, will have much more short-term influence over Obama's popularity. And, yes, a lot of conservatives these days think that the government hiring people and buying goods can't do anything o reduce unemployment or stimulate demand. But what if the economy recovers anyway? Isn't it possible? I mean, I thought George W. Bush's economic policies were unlikely to stimulate long-term growth and out of line with public priorities, but I wasn't certain that they'd cause short-term economic pain or make him unpopular by the end of his second term. (They did do that, but the outcome wasn't preordained.)
I'm not saying the economy will recover or that Obama will stay popular. Quite possibly, four years from now we could still be mired in a worldwide depression and Obama could be facing dismal -- who knows, even Bush-like -- popularity ratings. The world is unpredictable. But isn't there a pretty decent chance that the economy will have recovered, and Obama's policies will look fairly wise in retrospect? Do Republicans want to make any political plans for this contingency?
Update: I just realized I failed to explain what the downside of the Short Obma strategy is. The downside is that, in 2012 or 2016 or 2020, Obama remains broadly popular among the public at large, but highly unpopular among Republicans. In such a case, Republicans would need to nominate a leader who can credibley pose as a moderate successor to Obama, but the party base will only allow a nominee who opposed every element of Obama's agenda. The nightmare scenario for the GOP is that their party remains dramatically out of step with public opinion and unable to accomodate itself to a changing landscape.