That’s the question elected officials, political observers, and voters are asking about the Republican Party. Traditionally, the incumbent president or the party’s presidential candidate is the designated leader of the party. But in 2008, the two Republicans in this role have been unable to rally their political allies to their will.

George W. Bush is a lame duck president, arguably since his party lost control of Congress in 2006. His approval numbers were already at record lows before the economic crisis, which came down on him and his party like a ton of bricks. A recent poll by ABC News and the Washington Post put his disapproval ratings at a record 70 percent. The same poll finds that 25 percent think the president deserves the most blame for the economic crisis.

GOP presidential nominee John McCain has a very different problem. He has made his political reputation, rightly and wrongly, based on his willingness to buck his party’s leadership and the conservative base, on issues ranging from immigration to the environment to confirmation of judicial nominees. His problem is that he has burned his bridges with the base that it’s difficult for some of the party faithful to get excited about his campaign.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the lack of political capital Bush and McCain with regard to influencing congressional Republicans is the fact that they could not get more than one third of House Republicans to vote in favor of the bill, compared to two thirds of House Democrats who supported it. Another telling statistic about Bush and McCain’s diminished influence in their own congressional delegations, pointed out by Politico’s Jonathan Martin: only 4 out of a combined 23 House Republicans from Texas and Arizona voted for the bailout, and they were all from Texas.

While congressional leaders from both parties came together fairly quickly to try and come up with a solution to the crisis, when McCain called for his joint White House photo op with Obama he may have overly politicized the process and potentially helped to derail negotiations.

After the House vote failed, Congressional Republicans held a press conference to denounce a partisan speech given by Nancy Pelosi on the House floor, and said that she was responsible for the failure to pass the bill.

But voters aren’t buying the spin. According to the ABC/Post poll, 44 percent think that congressional Republicans are responsible for failing to pass the bailout legislation, compared to just 21 percent who blame the Democrats and 17 percent who blame both parties. But voters in general are in a sour mood with Congress. A recent CBS poll put congressional approval ratings at only 15 percent. There is a real and tangible feeling of “Throw the Bums Out” and I think a lot of incumbents up for reelection, particularly in the House, will be sweating bullets on Election Day.

Yes, Democrats have been running Congress for more than 18 months now, so some of the pressures of incumbency might be on them. However, I think perceptions with the voters are hardening, if not solidified, that Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress for most of the last 8 years, and that most of, if not all, the events that led up to this moment of economic crisis happened on their watch.

If McCain loses the election and more GOP incumbents are ousted in the House and Senate, look for another round of circular firing squads and potential changes in their congressional leadership. The vacuum in leadership will force new faces to step up and take over, probably from outside Washington. Keep an eye on who is posturing or making noise to be the GOP frontrunner for 2012. I expect it to begin immediately after the current election is over. My guess is we will be hearing and seeing a lot more of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Tim Pawlenty. From the Congress, look for 2012 buzz coming from Rep. Eric Cantor, Sen. John Thune, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Marc Ambinder made a post on this subject worth reading, and the title effectively frames the GOP’s dilemma: “Republicans Are Free Agents Now.”

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