I love when someone criticizes a group of people or a segment of the population but then adds that caveat “Oh, and I have a lot of ( ) friends.” This brings me to something I’ve been debating in my head for a while: what the hell is wrong with the Republican party? And let me be clear, I have a lot of Republican friends!
Now that’s a sort of generically-boring statement because you can just take out “Republican” and insert any other group: black, gay, jewish, christian, democrats, whatever. Having been an english major in undergrad, I’m hot for adjectives. Adjectives, by their very nature, help us. They help us see something, smell it, taste it. They help us understand better. Being a son of the south, I come from a long line of habitual adjective junkies and frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Republican” as an adjective seems to be in transformation. Understanding what it means to be a Republican in today’s America has gotten tricky. In fact, I don’t know of a single Republican today who will tell me their party isn’t in crisis.
Back in November 2011, former Bush White House speechwriter David Frum wrote a very interesting piece in New York magazine that was one hell of an eye-opener. He’s of the opinion that his party is heading in the wrong direction, that his party is re-defining the meaning of real conservatism.
Frum is no “RINO” aka “republican in name only.” This is the guy who came up with the term “axis of evil.” He considers himself a “conservative Republican” and has written more than a few books about his political party, many to great acclaim and some to great scorn.
So what’s Frum’s problem with his own party? By his own admission, he helped “make the mess.” It seems fair to me for his fellow conservatives to ask him where and why he’s gone astray but I also think that’s a two-way street. If questions from within can’t be asked, questions from the outside are the only voices shouting in an echo chamber. Martin Luther’s affection for hammer, nail, parchment and the subsequent questioning of his own church began the Protestant Reformation. So questioning our very own isn’t radical. Instead it’s the questioning in real time that seems to be the problem.
From Frum’s perspective, what’s wrong with his party is “the drying up of the conservative creativity.” He posits that Republicans have to show a better way, an alternative way to that of President Barack Obama and frankly of his former boss President George W. Bush.
Being “against” instead of “for” the other side is largely an apt description for both political parties today. Whether this is a perception issue or reality issue doesn’t matter. What matters is what the public thinks. What matter is what they see and how they feel about the political parties. Gone are the days of getting our news from the late Walter Cronkite and, most importantly, trusting the news. The country has always had a healthy dose of political skepticism. Today’s 24-hour new cycle (of which I’m admittedly a part) in many ways is responsible for this chasm between what’s reality and what’s perceived to be reality. We are inundated with so much from so many places, it’s hard to cut through the bullshit of it all.
Frum devotes a major portion of his November reflection on the GOP to Fox News and talk radio. He states “The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a ferver of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).” Mind you this is a thoughtful conservative accusing Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world of brainwashing the masses. While Frum doesn’t accuse the Democrats of such brainwashing, I readily admit my side of the aisle engages here as well.
Frum, who advocated for his party to reach a deal with the Obama White House and the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, was fired from the American Enterprise Institute and castigated by the far right for suggesting something heretical: compromise. I’m reminded of the 60 Minutes interview with the incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner (OH) who refused to even utter that dirtiest of dirty words “compromise” when asked by Leslie Stahl over and over again. In fact, he even went so far as to say “I reject the word.”
Speaker Boehner is a good man in my opinion. He’s “old school;” he gets the art of the deal. He worked hand-in-hand with the late liberal stalwart Senator Ted Kennedy (MA) to pass the No Child Left Behind legislation. Today, he’s the top Republican in the country but he’s being held hostage by the far right wing of his party. It’s no wonder he and his party refuse to simply “compromise?” And it’s no wonder David Frum is an outsider in his own political party.
I wonder what late Senator Barry Goldwater if he were alive would think of his political party today. By all accounts, Goldwater led a nascent conservative movement into the modern era and set up the mantle for the likes of Ronald Reagan and others to carry forward into a conservative’s virtual Glory Days. This was the Republican candidate for President who said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Sounds to me like a current Tea Party movement soundbite doesn’t it?
In his latter years though, Goldwater castigated his party for their stance on issues ranging from equal rights for gays to the separation of church and state. In his final term in the Senate, he took to the Floor on September 15, 1981 to discuss the issues of religion, conservatism, and the Republican party (Congressional Record, 127.15, 1981, pp.20589f). I’m intrigued by something Senator Goldwater said:
I, too, believe that we Americans should return to our traditional values concerning morality, family closeness, self-reliance, and a day’s work for a day’s pay. These are the values our forebears clung to as they built this Nation into the citadel of freedom it is today. And I, too, have been pleased with the swing of the pendulum for in recent years to the conservative, moral end of the spectrum. But I object to certain groups on that pendulum and then claiming that they caused it t0 swing in the first place. And I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D…” And I’m more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-given right to control my vote on every rollcall in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.
In his later years, Goldwater famously took the substance of his Floor speech a step further and became a surprising advocate of equal rights for the LGBT community and even went so far as to say abortion shouldn’t be a political football. This leads me back to Mr. Frum.
To close his article, Frum notes “…a great political party is worth fighting for.” He’s right, literally. Goldwater felt the same way by continuing to speak out after he left the Senate from retirement back in Arizona. Of late we’ve heard former Senator Alan Simpson (WY), who wasn’t considered a moderate in when he was the Republican Whip, on the overreach by the right-wing of the his party. Former Senator John Danforth (MO) has chimed in as well.
But the juncture at which Frum and Goldwater’s paths cross is the point they begin walking together in search for something bigger. It’s this issue of allowing their party to be hijacked by extremists that unites the living and the dead. My friends on the American right can learn something from their counterparts across the “pond:” British conservatives. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has been quoted favoring equal gay marriage rights. The Prime Minister eloquently said “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” This is groundbreaking. The idea of supporting stable marriages between two consenting adults versus being told as a group your assimilation isn’t wanted is stark.
One of the major reasons I switched from being a Republican to a Democrat in 1992 was the issue of equal rights for gays. Since then my politics have obviously evolved into a much larger vision about which political party aligns with me. I’ve spent nearly 20 years in Washington, DC with 15 of those years working directly in politics. My nearly seven years as a Senate staffer were filled with low pay, immense power, and an insatiable soaking-up of policy. After another seven plus years as a lobbyist for just about every industry under the sun, I got the other side of the DC equation: politics. With education comes knowledge right? And much to the chagrin of my friends on the Left, the Democratic Party has lost its way in many ways too (that’s another column for another day).
I’ve said before and I continue to believe the best kind of government is the one that leaves us alone when we need to be left alone and lifts us up when we need a helping hand. Like the tall case clock that sits in my living room, that government pendulum swings back and forth between the leaving alone and the helping hand. Unlike my clock, sometimes the pendulum of government gets out of whack by over reaching or under reaching and that’s why we have elections.
This November, voters will walk into the polls, pull that curtain, and take a gut check. For some, they will go through the same gut check I went through 20 years ago when I reluctantly switched from the Republican to the Democratic party. If the polls are any indication for the fall, the Republican party could be in for a massive wakeup call. If you don’t believe me, just ask Republicans like Frum, Danforth, and Simpson. I bet you’d hear the ghostly echo of Goldwater from the Senate Chamber of yesteryear when the GOP was the most popular political party in America.