DIONNE’S ADVICE FOR THE GOP…. E.J. Dionne Jr. has a good column today, noting that polls show a drop off in support for the president and his party, but also that Republicans aren’t capitalizing. The GOP would be in better shape, the WaPo columnist argues, if it weren’t “defined by extremist voices who have faced little push-back from its leaders.”

After highlighting the “birthers,” the right-wing race-baiting, the insistence that health care reform will lead the government to murder senior citizens, and last week’s dust-up over whether the GOP has been “taken over by Southerners,” Dionne takes stock.

In the short term, these tussles and rumblings may not matter much. The country is focused on judging what the Democrats are doing with the power they hold. The path that politics will take depends largely on the outcome of the health-care battle and the direction of the economy.

But to take advantage of the opportunities that might come their way, Republicans will have to make themselves an acceptable alternative. They have not done this yet. Facing down extremism and breaking out of the party’s regional enclave would be good places to start.

This will, in all likelihood, be perceived as concern trolling. Dionne isn’t a reflexive partisan, but it’s fair to say he also wouldn’t welcome another Republican takeover of the federal levers of power. The right is no doubt aware of this.

But his point — and his advice — is nevertheless compelling. Republicans can’t face down extremism, in part because the party has invested so much time and energy cultivating an angry GOP base. But what’s interesting here is that the Republican Party would be in a much stronger position if it were to move away from the far-right cliff, and the public didn’t see the party as the group of angry conspiracy theorists who backed the Bush/Cheney failures and now support insane policies like a five-year spending freeze as the solution to an economic crisis.

Time will tell, obviously, how voters respond to current events. But I have to assume Democratic leaders feel blessed to have such reckless and unhinged rivals.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.