How bad off is the Republican Party right now? Ask Newt Gingrich.
"The Republican Party right now is like a midsize college team trying to play in the Superbowl," Gingrich told me Wednesday. "It is pretty hard to say our losses were because of John McCain's campaign. McCain performed way above plausibility compared to where the Republican president was in the polls. We have to look honestly at what went wrong."
Gingrich, Republican speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, declined say who he wanted as the next chairman of the party. He said his main concern was the rise of what he called the "modern left," which just a few years ago was thought to be moribund in this country but now looks alive and kicking.
Gingrich said the fundraising capacity of the left in the last election proved astonishing and far outstripped what Republicans were able to gather. "The modern left has gotten that large," Gingrich said.
The question now, Gingrich went on, is whether Barack Obama intends to govern from the left or not.
"Does Barack Obama want to govern from the center, which his Grant Park speech implied, or govern from the left?" Gingrich said. "Does he want to govern through (Harry) Reid and (Nancy) Pelosi or govern through a centrist majority, in which case he will get a substantial number of votes in the House and Senate but he will make the left unhappy."
Gingrich said that the best thing the Republican Party could do right now is stop worrying about the Republican Party. "We need to worry about the nation," Gingrich said. "Wal-Mart doesn't get ahead by attacking Sears but by offering better value."
It wasn't all that long ago that the Democratic Party was going through the same kind of agonizing re-appraisals, bemoaning the fact that it couldn't raise as much money as Republicans, build as impressive a ground operation or field as compelling candidates.
But Barack Obama's election to the presidency and increased Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have swept all that away and now Republicans are wondering how to get through their wilderness years.
Greg Mueller, a political consultant who specializes in conservative candidates, said that the next chairman of the party must be an "ideological conservative."
"We need full-throttle conservatism," Mueller said. "We have governed as lighter versions of liberal Democrats. We went to Washington to be fiscal conservatives and we became profligate spenders and big-government bureaucrats."
Mueller went on: "It is very unpopular to be a Republican right now, but it is very popular to be a conservative. The conservative brand is the most popular brand in the country, but we didn't run as conservatives."
As to who, if anybody, will replace the current Republican National Committee chair Mike Duncan, Republicans are split, though Michael Steele is being mentioned a great deal.
Steele, an African-American, is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and currently the chairman of GOPAC, which trains Republican candidates (and was once chaired by Gingrich).
While Republicans are still maneuvering the election of the next chairman will be by the 168 RNC members and won't take place until January Steele already has a band of admirers.
"Steele would be excellent," said Duf Sundheim, former chair of the California Republican Party. "I am hearing Michael is definitely interested and that Newt is not going to run."
(Gingrich issued a statement Tuesday that could be seen as bowing out of the race though it left a small amount of wiggle room. "A number of people have asked me to consider running for Republican National Committee chair. They have been very flattering, and I am very honored by their support," Gingrich said. "However, my job as an American first is to develop a tri-partisan approach to developing solutions for the challenges we face. I use the word tri-partisan to designate the concept of attracting Democrats, Republicans, and independents to solutions that unify most Americans.")
Sundheim said of Michael Steele: "He understands where the party needs to go, he has got a strong set of principles, he is well able to articulate a message in all the media forms, and can take that message to the growing areas of the country youth and minorities and he does very well with women. He is the future of the party."
But one influential Republican believes that RNC members are going to insist that the next chair come from the RNC.
"As to the new chair, don't pay any attention to people who aren't on the RNC," he told me. "This is not a good thing, but the current RNC believes only one of their own should be chair. Maybe a dozen have a clue politically and that's being very kind. None (as chairman) could be an ideas leader or command the substantive respect of Republican senators or representatives."
A current member of the RNC told me that few who are now serving in that body have ever gone through what they are now going through.
"There are currently only 31 members of the committee who have been on the committee to elect a chairman without a Republican in the White House," he said. "When you have the White House, the president tells you who to have as chair and you make that pick."
The RNC member also said 76 members "have only been on the RNC for a couple of years" and it is a "relatively young committee in terms of service."
He named six current members of the RNC who are seriously considering running for the chair: Katon Dawson of South Carolina, Jim Greer of Florida, Saul Anuzis of Michigan, Ron Nehring and Shawn Steel of California, and Tina Benkiser of Texas.
But he also cautioned that the seat might not change hands at all. "There is a lot of sentiment to keep Mike Duncan," the RNC member said. "He did a fabulous job in a tough environment."
One well-connected Republican e-mailed me: "The chair should be someone who has run/knows/appreciates grass-roots and ground game, has the capability to pull us out of the tech/Internet ditch we're in and has the substance and knowledge to turn the RNC into an ideas factory that can forge the new GOP platform with our elected officials."
But he was also pessimistic of that happening if the RNC insists on an RNC member as chair. "This election will be one huge wasted opportunity," he said.