http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10498758 From The Economist print edition The Republican Party is in a mess. The answer is surprisingly simple BACK in July 2007, John Heilemann, a writer for New York magazine and an alumnus of this newspaper, argued that it was possible to imagine John McCain winning the Republican nomination—but only if you had been fortified by “half a bottle of Maker's Mark, followed by a nitrous-oxide chaser”. Mr McCain is now back. But a bigger question remains. Do you need to partake of Mr Heilemann's chemical cocktail to believe that the Republican nomination is worth having? The Republicans look like dead men walking. Almost two-thirds of Americans regard the Iraq war as a mistake. A similar proportion think that the country is on the wrong track. Americans regard the Democrats as more competent than Republicans by a margin of five to three and more ethical by a margin of two to one. They prefer Democratic policies on everything from health care to taxes. These figures have come to life in Iowa and New Hampshire. Twice as many Democrats turned out to caucus in Iowa as Republicans. The Democrats are fired up with Bush-hatred and ready to take the White House. The Republicans are despondent and defensive. “I'd rather vote for a dead dog than a Democrat”, one New Hampshirite told this columnist. “But the way things are going it might have to be the dead dog.” The party has flailed around for a champion without success. Rudy Giuliani led the national polls for months only to implode. Fred Thompson sped to the front for a while only to fall asleep at the wheel. The party is divided into warring factions. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have as much in common as their respective alma maters—Harvard Business School and Ouachita Baptist University. The party is also in danger of going off the deep end. Mr Huckabee denies that man is descended from the apes. Everyone except Mr McCain seems to think that it's a good plan to send 12m illegal immigrants back home. The party's travails are producing a fierce argument on the right. Are the Republicans' problems just part of the normal political cycle? Or do they portend the end of an era? The pragmatists argue that the problems are just a matter of competence and happenstance. The war in Iraq was badly managed until Bob Gates and General David Petraeus took over. The White House's response to Hurricane Katrina was dismal. The Republican majority in Congress fell victim to the normal foibles of greed and lust. Voters always grow tired of incumbents. The fundamentalists think that there is something much deeper going on. Ed Rollins, a former Reagan aide who is now Mr Huckabee's campaign chairman, argues that the machine that Ronald Reagan built is now finished. The coalition of social conservatives, defence conservatives and anti-tax conservatives “doesn't mean a whole lot to people anymore”. Mr Huckabee is openly critical of George Bush's foreign policy. The truth is more nuanced. There is more than happenstance at work, but less than the break-up of the Republican coalition. Mr Bush's people pursued a self-defeating political strategy. They fired up the Republican base, ignoring the centre and rewarding their loyalists with government largesse. But Mr Bush's serial incompetence destroyed his narrow majority. And his addiction to government spending alienated fiscal conservatives. Mr Bush's Republicans also made serious policy errors. They stuck their head in the sand over global warming. They ignored rising anxiety about stagnating middle-class incomes. They turned the war on terrorism into a defining issue and then messed it up. Mr Reagan had a lasting influence not just because he forged a coalition but also because he was right on the biggest issues of his time—the importance of shrinking government and facing down communism. The Republicans are now in danger of being either wrong or half wrong on two of the defining issues of our time—global warming and radical Islam. This suggests that the Republicans need to engage in some vigorous rethinking, and fast. But it does not add up to a case for taking a jack-hammer to the Reagan coalition. The coalition has served the Republicans handsomely in the past—they will have held the White House for 20 of the past 28 years and controlled the House for 12 years from 1995. Jackhammering the coalition would almost certainly be a disaster. Do the Republicans really want to abandon a chunk of their core voters when they are already behind in the polls? And do they want to engage in a civil war in the middle of a tight election? The value of values Business conservatives can never win a majority without the support of “values voters” (there just are not enough people around who look like Mr Romney). “Values voters” can never produce a viable governing coalition without the help of the business elite. The Republicans have seen revolts against their ruling coalition before—remember Pat Buchanan's pitchfork rebellion against George Bush senior—and they have always succeeded in putting it back together again. They need to do the same now. Enough Republicans believe enough of the Reagan mantra—less government, traditional values and strong defence—to make it a workable philosophy. The doomsters draw the wrong lesson from the Bush years. The lesson of the Bush presidency is not that the Republican coalition is exhausted but that it has been badly managed. Mr Bush has failed to keep the coalition in balance—he tilted too far towards his party's moralistic southern wing and too far away from its libertarian western wing. He has allowed public spending to balloon and pork-barrel politicians to run wild. And he has ignored big changes in public opinion about climate change. The Republican Party certainly needs to update its agenda to deal with problems Reagan never grappled with. But this is no time to go breaking the mould and starting again.