Robert Novak offers his own advice for Republicans looking to rebrand the party, and it sounds much like the advice I offered last week. If they want to take the mantle of fiscal discipline, it would help if they didn’t overwhelmingly support increases of over 40% in farm-subsidy bills. Just mouthing reformist platitudes put the Republicans in their current circumstances, and more of the same will not rescue them from their predicament:

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, 38 and having served less than five terms, did not leap over a dozen of his seniors to become the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee by bashing GOP leaders. But an angry Ryan delivered unscripted remarks on the House floor last Wednesday as the farm bill neared passage: “This bill is an absence of leadership. This bill shows we are not leading.”

Ryan’s fellow reformer Jeff Flake of Arizona, 45 and in his fourth term, is less cautious about defying the leadership and has been kept off key committees. On Wednesday, he said of a $300 billion bill that raises farm subsidies and is filled with non-farm pork, “Sometimes, here in Washington, we tend to drink our own bath water and believe our own press releases.”

A bill that raises spending 44 percent above last year’s level has been approved by a majority of both Senate and House Republicans, dooming any chance of sustaining President Bush‘s promised veto. GOP leaders were divided, with Bush sounding an uncertain trumpet. Today’s Republican Party — divided, drifting, demoralized — is epitomized by the farm bill.

At the moment Congress passed the farm bill, Republicans were terrified by the previous day’s defeat in Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District, the third straight supposedly safe Republican seat lost in a special election. Fearing a November tsunami for the Democrats, incumbent Republicans talked about following their new standard-bearer, John McCain, against pork. But that’s not the way they voted last week.

It’s not the way they’ve voted for almost eight years, and George Bush deserves a healthy share of the blame.  Not only did he wait a very long time to discover his veto pen, he proposed and pushed through hefty increases in federal spending while Republicans controlled Washington.  The GOP had no problem porking bills up at a historical rate without any meaningful opposition on spending.

The GOP wants to position itself as the party of reform, and they talk a good game, but they refuse to act.  This farm bill shows why.  Instead of taking a stand on unnecessary spending and explaining the reasons why the bill wastes taxpayer money, they’d rather take the pork and waste the money.  That’s not terribly courageous, and that explains why no one really buys the rhetoric.  When they had the opportunity to take action in support of their reformist principles, they decided to encourage their members to vote to protect themselves within their districts.

That won’t change anyone’s minds about the nature of Republican leadership.  They want to ride the fiscal-discipline coattails of John McCain into November’s elections without casting votes like John McCain on issues of fiscal discipline.  When they realize the difference between talk and action, Republican leadership will have taken the first step towards winning back the public’s trust.