I haven't always been a Republican. When I first pondered running for statewide office in Oklahoma almost 20 years ago, I was a registered Democrat. Growing up in an African-American home in eastern Oklahoma, the nephew of a legendary political figure who was president of the Oklahoma NAACP, I was pretty well indoctrinated into the Democrat mind-set as a young man.
As I grew up, I was intrigued by and drawn to a vibrant Republican Party. In 1980, as a journalism student at the University of Oklahoma, I covered a debate on campus between Oklahoma's candidates for the U.S. Senate. When I got to the auditorium, I recognized the Democrat, the district attorney for the Oklahoma City area.
Across from him was a young kid I assumed to be a campaign aide for the Republican. In fact, the kid was the candidate. A 30-year old, first-term state senator named Don Nickles.
When Nickles opened his mouth that evening, a new world was opened to me. The Democrat was spouting the same rhetoric I'd heard forever -- rhetoric that didn't fit the times. But the Republican candidate spoke of opportunity, strength and freedom that I hadn't heard before. Nickles won election to the Senate that year, and joined Ronald Reagan in transforming the Republican Party and our nation into a bastion of growth, strength and pride.
I was a Republican at heart for years before I became a Republican on paper. This was the place for me. The party was on.
But something has happened in the ensuing years. The party is becoming a wake.
The party that stood for opportunity, less government, strength, freedom and family has lost its brand.
The Republican Party -- the party I embrace as mine -- is suffering from a serious lack of leadership. Who is the face of the GOP?
Not coincidentally, most of the faces who contributed to our poor showing are no longer around.
Tom DeLay left Congress under a cloud. Donald Rumsfeld quietly walked out the back door. Mark Foley is gone. Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney are locked up somewhere. Karl Rove is gone and Dick Cheney is out of sight. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has mercifully put an end to his career in Washington. And Larry Craig, a senator you had probably never heard of before two weeks ago, raised his name identification quickly enough to require his departure from a long career of public service.
On top of all this, Republicans haven't come up with a fresh idea since the Contract with America.
With a 51-49 split in the Senate favoring the Democrats, the Republicans will have a challenge holding all 22 seats they'll defend in 2008. With Sen. John Warner's announcement in Virginia that he won't seek re-election, things just got tougher for the GOP in the Commonwealth -- and in the Senate. Does anyone really think Warner would hang it up if the Republicans were the party he once served?
The Democrats have 12 seats in play in the Senate, and maybe one of them will have a competitive campaign.
The president has a 58 percent disapproval rating as of this writing. Only white evangelicals give the Republicans more than 50 percent approval at this point, and they're so dispirited they may sit out Election Day 2008.
We have a leading candidate for president who is supportive of abortion and same-sex marriage, and another top-tier candidate on record supporting those issues in the past.
The Democrats used to be the party we Republicans could point to for scandal, but now it has been shown that our guys aren't immune to Democratizing themselves.
It took Democrats 40 years in power to dismantle their majority through corruption and scandal. It only took the Republicans 12.
Republicans are rudderless right now. At this point, that individual to whom grass-roots Republicans can look for leadership and vision has not emerged.
As I travel around the country, I find the grass-roots Republicans very disillusioned. They want to be inspired. They want something to live for, to hope for, and to love. They don't feel like they're getting it.
Can one of the current crop of presidential aspirants provide that? Maybe. But it hasn't happened yet. If not Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney, could Fred Thompson or upstart Mike Huckabee be the man? Will they brand the party in a way that will inspire and motivate the young J.C. Wattses of today, as Ronald Reagan and Don Nickles did for me 27 years ago? That's my fervent hope and prayer.
J.C. Watts is chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group. He is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. His e-mail address is JCWatts01@jcwatts.com. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal.