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The State of the Union? Furious.

By Kimberley Strassel

Fans of HBO's "The Wire" know fictional Baltimore Mayor Tommy Carcetti. The reformer spends his first days in office screeching through every public-works unit, railing about an abandoned car here, a leaking hydrant there.

Shocked city administrators ask their angry new boss: Where is the abandoned car? Which leaking hydrant? The mayor won't specify. In fear, they mobilize their forces to pick up all the abandoned cars, to fix all the hydrants. The beat-down citizens of Baltimore cheer. Mayor Carcetti smiles.

Republicans ought to watch "The Wire."

The state of the union is angry. Citizens are furious about gas prices and health-care costs, broken schools and property taxes. These are the leaky hydrants, the constant reminders that government hasn't done much for them lately. Their fury has bubbled as they've watched Washington obsess over itself - dealing out earmarks, paying off constituencies, launching probes into political enemies. Accomplishing zip.

This anger is the best way to describe today's political landscape. Ever since Republicans were routed in 2006, and more recently with their loss of three special elections, the party has been in a debate about what changed in the country and what to do in response. In the primaries, as Mike Huckabee pitched to evangelicals, Rudy Giuliani pitched to fiscal conservatives, and Mitt Romney pitched to anything that moved, some went so far as to declare the "death" of the Reagan coalition.

Encouraging this panicked discussion has been a new theory that the nation is experiencing a seismic political shift. A few short years ago, we were supposed to be on the verge of a lasting conservative majority. Scrap that. Now we're lurching toward a lasting "middle" majority. Voters are said to have embraced "centrism." (Whatever that is.) All hail "moderates." (Whoever they are.) And don't forget the crowd, who argue we are, in fact, on the verge of a lasting liberal majority.

Maybe voters are just mad as hell. At everyone. George W. Bush's approval ratings have hit an all-time low at 31%, which is not good for Republicans. Then again, the Democratic Congress's approval rating clocked in at 18% - the lowest in Gallup's history.

Consider independents, that key voting group and bellwether of the national mood. Analysts have pointed to the growing number of registered independents as proof the country is moving toward the "middle." But as pollster Whit Ayres notes, what primarily defines independents is that they are all "cynical about politics and politicians." They aren't ideological in any particular way - left, right or center. They are "pragmatists," says Mr. Ayres. "They want solutions to problems."

This is what Republicans haven't yet understood. Their failures in office kicked off this anger, and they remain its target. Yet they've been doing a remarkable impression of 1980s Democrats, who engaged in trivial warfare even as Ronald Reagan laid out his vision for the future.

Today's GOP spends so much time fretting about how to relive the Reagan heyday, it has failed to do him credit by laying out its own plans for today's unique challenges. It remains in hock to interest groups, running ads about sanctuary cities as Americans curse over gas prices. In a repeat of 2006, it spends more time trying to scare voters about Democrats than defining itself. It refuses to give up the earmarks that are a symbol of its worn-out reign.

The presidential candidates tapped into this anger early, no one more so than Mr. Change, Barack Obama. John McCain laid out his first-term vision in a speech this week, but also bashed the Washington "politics of selfishness, stalemate, and delay." This McCain refrain helps explain why he remains competitive with Mr. Obama - in particular among independents.

Mr. McCain's agenda is not "centrist," but conservative. Independents are behind it because the Republican has convinced them he is apart from the status quo, and will get things done.

House Republicans appear to be catching on. This week they rolled out the first part of an election-year agenda that pointedly lists their legislative "solutions" to the problems of today. It is aimed at women, and includes innovative proposals to help families struggling to balance work and home. To follow will be calls for more domestic energy production, a free-market health agenda, national security and entitlement reform.

This redefinition should've come earlier. And it would mean more if House incumbents who swear they've learned a lesson would demonstrate it in office. Say, with an earmark ban.

The real worry for Republicans is that today's anger could fester, and fulfill those prophecies of a long-term shift away from the party. Voters are looking for a feisty Mayor Carcetti.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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