Who Hijacked the GOP?

I originally wrote this for A Hollywood Republican in 2011, where I am tolerated as a not-overly-inflammatory opposing view.  A Facebook thread today reminded me of it, and I realized I’ve never logged it in here on my own blog — so here it is.  Keep in mind the original publication date of May 17, 2011.  

Ronald Reagan  famously said – “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the party left me.”   For me, it was the inverse. My political DNA comes from a father who was a conservative Republican, an Army Colonel who died in Vietnam and whose service to our country remains a deep source of pride to me. Following in his footsteps, I served 10 years as in intelligence professional for the US Government at the climax of the cold war in places like Moscow, Warsaw, Ethiopia, and the Philippines.   Although I was never a member of the Republican party, I voted Republican in the first four Presidential elections of my adult life—’76, ’80, ’84, and ’88.   So why is is that in the 5 elections since 1988, I haven’t been able to pull the lever for the GOP?   What happened?  Did I leave the party — or did it leave me?

What Happened to Moderate Republicanism?

When I voted Republican in those four elections I voted for the candidate of the day — but I voted with a sense of what I thought was the history and the trajectory of the party.  I saw a Republican Party which in my lifetime had given us Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Thomas Dewey, Margaret Chase Smith, Gerald Ford, and yes, Richard Nixon.   Ronald Reagan was more conservative than I was comfortable with and his “evil empire” speech–which I heard while serving at the US Embassy in Moscow — made me squirm a bit. But I hung in there with the party and  in ’88 George H.W. Bush seemed a return to the sensible Republican Party I knew. But right there under my nose in the 80′s (a decade spent in overseas service, which may explain how I missed some of it) there was the emergence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and, more broadly, the Religious Right, and with it the culture wars that would vie for the soul of the Republican Party.  By 1992 the landscape was vastly different.  Had the party been hijacked — or had my conception of the party been wrong all along?

Does Today’s Republican Party Do Justice to Its Heritage?

Democrats love to remind Republicans  that today’s GOP is also the party of Lincoln – a party that abolished and destroyed slavery, waged an all-out war to hold the Union together, launched Reconstruction—a huge, ambitious social program, imposed a progressive income tax, created the first national banking system, the Department of Agriculture, and the system of land-grants and college education for all Americans. Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt, also a legendary  Republican,  was a “Trust Buster,” who supported the coal miners union in 1902.  He was on record as believing hat the government must provide quality healthcare for every American. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert were self-described “progressives”.   Clearly the GOP then for politicians who couldn’t fit into the party of today. But what, exactly, are the historical roots of the GOP of today, and is the party true to those roots?

I wasn’t paying that much attention in college — but I do remember that the Republican Party was born in the 1850’s with a vision that had to do with a  “modern America” – free homesteads to free farmers, a vision of banking, railroads to connect the country, industry to fuel it.  It was igorously anti-slavery and argued that free market labor would generate productivity far greater than a slave state could hope for.  I recall thinking that this seemed a solid enough foundation.  “Free soil, free speech, free labor, free men” was the campaign slogan of the first Republican Presidential candidate, John Fremont.  It worked for me.  So far, so good.

Then came Lincoln, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Scalawags and Mugwumps, all of that – landing the GOP in the 1890’s, when Republicans differentiated themselves against the  three R’s of the democrats – “Rum, Rebellion, and Revolution”.   Republicans were, broadly, pious, protestant, native-born, while demoracts were catholic, immigrant, and free-wheeling.  Many Republicans were pro-prohibition at least two decades before it became a reality in 1918 and that willingness to legislate morality was something that should have gotten my attention had I been  ully paying attention in college.

But I wasn’t paying that much attention.  My “takeaway” from my cursory examination of the history of that era of the party was William McKinley being elected in 1896, and the Spanish American War of 1898 thrusting America on the world stage as a superpower.   McKinley’s  ssassination in 1901 brought the young, dynamic Theodore Roosevelt to power — and Roosevelt busted the Trusts, supported the Unions, and  resided over a period of consolidation of America’s role as a world power.   Gilded age, Titanic era prosperity followed,  and with it the kind of moderate Republicanism that I came to think was true Republicanism, but probably was not.   And it was again, after a period of intense foreign  nvolvement, World War II,  that the America of my early youth saw a universally revered internationalist Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, ascend to the Presidency.  My own Republican votes were made in solidarity with this narrative — a Fremont-Lincoln-Roosevelt-Eisenhower narrative of a  Republican party that was strong on foreign policy, restrained on economics,  and progressive enough on social values to have room in the party for the likes of me.

The Culture Wars

Looking back, it was the culture wars that drove me away.  Social historians trace the roots  of the culture wars to the 1960′s and Vietnam.  My own Vietnam experience was informed by the fact that my father served there twice, dying the second time, and as a result I was cautious–I wasn’t a supporter of the war, but neither did I take the to streets against it. I thought it was a quagmire that was poorly handled, rather than a morally misguided mission. Somewhere in there, however, I acquired a socially progressive outlook.  I didn’t think of it as progressive — it was “live and let live”, which I thought was consistent with the principles of the GOP.  I knew there were many Republicans who were far more socially conservative–but the party didn’t define itself on these issues.  There was room for me on the one hand, and the Southern Baptists on the other.

 

To me, it was never as if one party had a monopoly on wisdom.  What I looked for in a candidate was more than a party label — I looked for intellect, integrity, an ability to connect with the nation and mobilize it.  It might be a Republican one time and a Democrat the next –after all  there are great
curve ball pitchers and great fast ball pitchers, and either can be a 20 game winner.  They get the job done differently, but they get it done.
Is politics that different?  Is one side inherently right in its philosophy and the other inherently wrong?  Or can either path make it to a better place if implemented intelligently and effectively?  For me, more important than ideology was the the idea of effectiveness — I was looking for someone who could first and foremost project an “idea of America” to the world that I could identify with and be proud to represent.  Reagan did that, and even though I wasn’t sure about his overall philosophy — I was willing to go along with it because i knew he could communicate and mobilize
public opinion; he could reach across the aisle and build alliances; he could make the system work.  If I didn’t agree with his economic policies it
wasn’t that big a deal — I could live with it.

But in the eighties, with a strongly conservative President Ronald Reagan in the White House, the likes of Jerry Falwell and the religious right began to move toward an ascendant position that, increasingly, defined the party on hot button social issues–abortion, homosexuality, gun politics,  censorship.   The party that had started out with the slogan “Free soil, free speech, free labor, free men” was now the party who was trying, it seemed to me, to impose its will in deeply personal areas of individual free will.

And then there was Bush II.

I voted for Gore and I didn’t like the way Florida played out, but I wasn’t hugely distressed that Bush II had won. True, there was something about W that bothered me, something snarky and thickheaded in his demeanor, but I kept thinking about his DNA and wondering—how bad can this guy be?

I guess I found out.  I will not attempt to dissect Bush’s Presidency. Suffice it to say that in 2000, I was still able to contemplate voting republican; by 2008 that was not a remote possibility.  Is it right to lay the blame for this at Bush’s doorstep?   It’s easy to do that.  Bush-bashing is great sport.  But I’ll pass on that one.  Yes,  I felt hoodwinked by the gap between the pitch for the Iraq War (remember Condi Rice: “We don’t want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud”?) and the reality (regime change), and it is the “War on Terror” as manifested by the Iraq War that ultimately will define the Bush Presidency. But I’m willing to concede that history may possibly look back more favorably Bush’s Iraq adventure than we do
now  if,  15 years from now there is a stable functioning democracy in Iraq and that democracy is having some positive effect within the region.  I’m willing to wait and let history reveal what it will about that.

But Iraq aside, what I really don’t understand is the hypocrisy and intellectual flabbiness of the Bush administration.  George Will says it better than I can:

By grafting a prescription-drug entitlement on to Medicare, just as the demographic deluge of the baby boomers’ retirements was beginning, the president expanded the welfare state more than any president since Lyndon Johnson created Medicare in 1965. By signing every grotesque spending measure that arrived on his desk with the support of a majority of congressional Republicans—e.g., the 2002 farm bill that increased corporate welfare for agriculture at a time of record farm profits —the president committed his party to a situational ethic of governance that amounts to no ethic at all. By signing the McCain-Feingold speech-rationing (a.k.a. “campaign reform”) legislation, the president violated his oath to defend the Constitution. By federalizing the family tragedy of Terri Schiavo, the president and some congressional allies made risible their stock of rhetoric in praise of limited government. By enacting the No Child Left Behind law, which is the thin end of a potentially enormous wedge, the administration licensed potentially unlimited federal supervision of the quintessentially local responsibility of education in grades K through 12, thereby further weakening federalism. And by presiding, in its last four months, over more and more flamboyant government intervention in the economy than at any time in 75 years, the administration completed the GOP’s intellectual disarmament.

So here we are.  Like a lot of America, I saw in Barack Obama intelligence and competence and a pendulum swing away from an intuitive “follow my
gut” Presidency to one grounded in intellectual rigor.  When Obama speaks I don’t cringe — and to be honest, Bush made me cringe, made me feel
that we as a nation were foolish not to have elected a Republican — but to have elected <em>this</em> Republican, and more specifically this
man who was not up to the challenge.    It didn’t help that the best the GOP could do in opposition to Obama was a tired and intellectually dishonest–it seemed to me–John McCain who a decade earlier had been the kind of Republican I could support, but who now was so busy pandering to the new moralistic Republican party that it was difficult to see the “McCain of old”.  And then there was the Pain factor.  Even if I could make my peace with McCain, there was the incredible irresponsibility of the selection of Palin as a running mate — a vice president who would be  the proverbial “heartbeat away” from the Presidency during the term of a 70 plus year old President.  It was just impossible to even think of voting for this duo.

Scanning the Field

But it’s 2011, and time to take another look at the field and start considering what’s out there on both sides.  With Mike Huckabee gone, it’s wide open but I can’t find a compelling figure.  Pawlenty, no. Gingrich, no way. Bachman, please no.  Trump? Yeah, right.

There’s Mitt Romney, of course.  He certainly looks the part and he’s been through one run, so he’s been vetted and knows reasonably well how to navigate.  His appearance in New Hampshire this past week showed that he has a carefully developed strategy to challenge Obama.  His business credentials and overall impression of a reasonable degree of level-headedness  makes him seem a bit like a throwback to the kind of Republican I voted for in the dim distant past.   I thought Bobby Jindal might be an interesting possibility ut he crashed and burned badly in his one “big stage” appearance giving a Republican response on National TV.  Tim Pawlenty — I don’t think so, but could be.In closing, here’s a secret.  There is one Republican out there I could at least contemplate voting for. Unfortunately, she just gave Christiane Amanpour a no-bs, no-wiggle-room, “I’m not running” statement that seems to pretty much insure she’s not going to consider even a vice president slot.  Who am I talking about?  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.  Now she is a Republican who intrigues me.  She’s got a story that’s almost as good as Obama’s (daughter of Indian immigrants, self-made, the whole thing) and she is dazzlingly articulate and poised.  Even when I don’t agree with her, I find her intriguing and compelling and she conveys a strong sense that the has been thoughtful in arriving at her positions.  Keep an eye on her — not for 2012, but 2016.  Maybe they’ll let her give the keynote speech at the Republican convention, a la Obama’s speech at the Dem Convention in 2004.  That’s what I would do.

Click to Watch Nikki Haley on ABC This Week With Christiane Amanpour

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