The speed with which Republican politicians are disappearing from public life is a marvel second only to their uniformly poor quality. Though a thinning of the herd is overdue, a more drastic culling is afoot. But near the horizon, where the bold names of the future should be arrayed, the prospects are dismal.

The impulse to cleanse the GOP establishment of its lackeys, dilettantes, phony experts, and professional moderates—normally to be obeyed like a survival instinct—confronts a problem: few have been prepared to fill the ravaged ranks. The conservative movement, such as it is, faces the most comprehensive credibility problem of its existence.

Rot starts at the top, and certainly there it’s plainest to see. Karl Rove, the overhyped guru who was good at winning elections but not particularly useful at anything else, is representative of the Bush legacy to the party machine—has-beens now useless to the organization whose reputation they so clumsily ruined.

The Bush administration presents an array of figureheads whose money is no good. In whose rolodex will Randall Tobias, AIDS czar and disgraced escort servicio, remain? Whither Michael “Brownie” Brown or Bernard Kerik, who never even had the chance to resign? When shall we again see former cabinet members Christie Todd Whitman and Paul O’Neill? Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers? Will Colin Powell return? Not even those who stormed out of the White House have another lease on life.

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Every hot shot who rose under Bush now sinks into the shadows. Karen Hughes is irrelevant, and Paul Wolfowitz broods in his visiting scholar’s office at the American Enterprise Institute. Donald Rumsfeld will not thrice become defense secretary. Nor Dick Cheney president, nor Michael Chertoff, despite the rumors, attorney general. The gloom extended to those who might otherwise have enjoyed lengthy, storied careers. Ask Condoleezza Rice, reduced to longing for the cool halls of Stanford.

For the Bush refugee, there is but one hope for remaining in politics—Republican triumph in 2008. If hope, as Emily Dickinson claimed, is the thing with feathers, the fantasy of an ’08 rescue is for the birds. Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson could beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. But if they do not, Norman Podhoretz and Liz Cheney seem condemned, at best, to the limbo reserved for Richard Holbrooke—the wax museum of the think-tank circuit. And if the Republican candidate goes down to defeat, blame may spread to anyone associated with the outgoing administration.

If, that is, there is anyone left inside the Beltway to bother with the attribution of blame. Republican fortunes in Congress, already dimmed, will soon lose the comforting bulk of longtime heavies who have masked for years a fundamental weakness reaching back to the fall of Newt Gingrich. Dennis Hastert and John Warner are retiring. Henry Hyde and Bill Frist are already gone. The present is clogged with the detritus of Larry Craig and Mark Foley. The future is not with the well-regarded but second-string John Boehner.

Even if John McCain becomes president, his is a lineage, like all the others, with no clear successor. Giuliani is a one-man species. Romney is a Republican in a region utterly devoid of them. Thompson and Gingrich are faces from a political yesterday. The elders are too late for another go, and the youngsters—Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, and company—face John Edwards’s future as premature losers. These are last chances all around.

This is to say nothing of the intellectual roots of a conservative movement that once towered over an ossified and unthinking Left. The career path for an enterprising young writer inclined to the Right seems to involve racing through the ordeal of defending the president toward the publication of what one author called a “shiny booklike object.”

Prudence and contemplation no longer hold sway in a political culture where the answers are already given and the purpose of research is to find the numbers to match. A movement designed to rescue the government from itself now finds itself in need of rescue from the luxury of government power. Meanwhile, op-eds appear in the public prints as if, simply because he has an idea, the author is entitled to be of consequence. Runs of hyperbole belie notes of desperation.

In ancient Rome, the word “decimation” was coined to denote that ritual of military punishment whereby nine of ten men in an unacceptable cohort were made to kill the tenth. This first wave of failure now wracking the Republicans is far less vicious but no less damaging. If the ranks are not replenished and the party not restored, the political decimation to come will be nearly as bloody as the real thing. Only instead of an army at reduced strength, the GOP will find itself without top brass.
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James G. Poulos is a doctoral candidate in government at Georgetown.