I’ve made no secret of my Democratic party leanings – I’ve voted Democratic for every Presidential candidate I’ve been eligible to vote. Yet I grew up in a Republican household, spent many chilly fall days in Connecticut canvassing for Republican candidates (local and national). My Dad volunteered on George HW Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign. Gerald Ford once commented to my Dad at a state party meeting that my Mom was cute. (She is, by the way.) So I have mostly positive feelings about the GOP – the old GOP. And I know precisely - the actual day - when those feelings started eroding:
That’s Pat Buchanan delivering his address to the 1992 Republican Convention. He referred to the Democratic Convention as a “masquerade ball”, mocked its attendees as “radicals and liberals” – even blew the “cross-dresssing” dog whistle (get it? THEY’RE ALL GAY!). And then this:
My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so, we have to come home, and stand beside him.
Much of the slash-and-burn tactics the GOP has deployed over the last 20 years trace, for me, to that speech. It’s possible they existed before – that religion was used as a wedge to scare voters into voting for the GOP – but I certainly didn’t see it. In President George HW Bush I saw a committed government servant, a modest man with a fearsome intellect who lost touch with his country. I voted for Bill Clinton, not against George Bush.
In 2000, I considered crossing party lines and supporting John McCain over George Bush in the California primary. I liked McCain, I didn’t like George W Bush, and I had originally supported Bill Bradley. (Family trivia: my first son was born on Super Tuesday that year. The political junkie thing runs strong in our family.)
And as President Bush betrayed his party’s ideals – on civil liberties, on government spending, on the separation of church and state, on scientific research, on diplomacy – I began to get angry. George W Bush did not represent the GOP I knew and grew up with: he led a religious coalition of social conservatives who sought to codify their beliefs through government intervention. When Howard Dean said “I want my country back!”, it resonated for me in a way that summed up much of what I felt was wrong. And when he followed it up by exclaiming that he was “tired of listening to the fundamentalist preachers!”, I remembered Pat Buchanan and his exhortations of a religious war.
Today’s GOP is coping with significant defeats across the board. I contend that this was a natural extension of Buchanan’s religious war: as Karl Rove (and Ashcroft, and Bush, and Palin, and countless others) played it to its logical conclusion, inevitably someone would show up and get us past it. But in those defeats, I’m encouraged – out of this will rise new thinking about what the party can (and should) do, most importantly from people whose voices must be heard in the party. Check out Rebuild the Party, or David Frum's announcement of the New Majority. Read Reihan Salam's posts over at The American Scene. Listen to former Congressman (and founding member of The Heritage Foundation) Mickey Edwards talk about the future of the conservative movement. They're not all in agreement - but they don't need to be. The key is that they're working hard to identify ways to reclaim the heart and soul of the Republican Party.
Many of my Democratic friends will no doubt scratch their heads, wondering why I would care: we won! But that's just it: I didn't support Barack Obama because I wanted to win. I supported Barack Obama because I believe in what Barack often spoke about: "disagreeing without being disagreeable". Politics for me is finding good solutions to hard problems, not demonizing the other guys because they don't agree with me.
Encouragingly, each of the links above demonstrate a positive, principled approach to defining what the Republican Party should be about. In none of those efforts do they spend any time figuring out clever ways to question my patriotism, my eagerness to destroy the family or my desire to wage war on people of faith. And that's a start. A very good one. Here's hoping they stay at it, and make progress.