They lost the vote only a little over five months ago. They lost power only three months ago. But the current state of the Republican Party is such that it’s hard to see them rebounding for quite some time.

That’s not how they’d see it. They’d tell you that’s where they were a month ago. Now, they argue, they’re back. First, they say, Obama is proving to be the great divider. Poll numbers out this week say quite clearly that now, almost more than ever before, Americans absolutely love or fervently hate the President based on whether or not they identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. In other words, say the GOP, the President, unlike either Bush, or Reagan, or even Bill Clinton, fails to appeal whatsoever to those who support the opposite party.

(The pollsters say that’s only half the story. What has actually happened is that GOP support has shrunk so much, with so few identifying themselves as Republicans, that the new polls only show what we already knew: that the few hardened believers who are still proud Republicans don’t very much like Obama. The real story is that so many people who used to identify themselves as Republicans now do not.)

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Next, they argue that they’ve grasped back the agenda. Some Republicans believe that with all their crowing about the plan to close Guantanamo Bay, with their loud opposition to basic equality for homosexuals, with their odd arguments that Obama is a socialist and, most recently (and ridiculously), that he is a fascist (brilliantly ripped into here), that they are really getting through to people.

Of course these arguments are getting through to some people. It’s just that “some people” only includes the most hardened neocons and the most extreme of the social conservatives. Or, to put it another way, the very few Americans who agreed with what they’re saying in the first place.

Here’s the point. They lost the election because what they said and the way they said it (the weird, anti-intellectual quasi-populism of the Joe the Plumber/Sarah Palin variety) increasingly didn’t chime with the American people, only with the Republican base. And yet their post-election strategy has been only to intensify that trend.

By playing to the most fractious, extreme elements of conservative support — those who watch and agree with Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly — they only alienate the rest. And to continue to do so, I think, would be their route to oblivion. As they play more and more to these sorts of opinions, the more they alienate (rather than persuade) the majority, and the less they look like serious people who could be trusted to run the country.

There are many Republicans who recognise that their current path is the wrong one. The problem is that without real leadership in opposition (a consequence, partly, of the American system), it is those who shout the loudest who have the most influence over the direction of the GOP. It is they, not the many moderates within the party, whom the public associate with the Republican brand. It is they who might bring it down.

Senior Congressional Republicans should muster the intelligence as well as the humility to work together to create an alternative picture for the public of what the Republican party is and stands for. And this vision must not be more of the same: The Republican party must change to reflect the changing nature of Americans’ attitudes and needs. Or else, by continuing in the manner of the past few months, it will cease to matter in US politics.