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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson


A Big Tent or a Pup Tent

Ronald Reagan defined and built the modern Republican Party. No one would accuse the former president of being anything but a card carrying conservative, even though he was once a Democrat who supported Franklin Roosevelt and campaigned for Harry Truman. Reagan knew a national party had to spread a “big tent” that included Northeastern moderates (even some liberals) and southern conservatives.

Reagan won two terms in the White House appealing to what became know as Reagan Democrats; families with union members, big city ethnic voters and what we used to call in Idaho “lunch bucket” Democrats. Reagan was also smart enough to build on the “southern strategy,” employed so successfully by Richard Nixon, that essentially turned the Old Confederacy into the modern GOP base.

Reagan’s was a grand strategy, an inclusive strategy, a winning strategy. It has only become clear, with the benefit of time and hindsight, that the Gipper defined a political generation. That may be close to over. Reagan’s “big tent” this morning looks a little like a flimsy dining fly, or maybe a two-person pup tent.

After an insurgent Republican, Tea Party supporter defeated moderate Delaware Republican Mike Castle yesterday (that’s him above looking as glum as he must feel today), one can almost write the obituary for the moderate Republican. My old boss, Cecil Andrus, used to joke when he was labeled “a liberal” by someone, that most Idaho Democrats were as far removed from eastern liberals like Ted Kennedy, a Democrat, and Jacob Javits, a Republican, as Long Island is removed from Priest Lake. Those were the days when the GOP really had, dare it be said, liberals.

In the east Javits, a power in the Senate from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, proudly called himself a liberal. So did fellow New Yorkers Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay and New Jersey’s Clifford Case. Out west, Oregon produced two moderate to liberal GOP Senators in the not-to-distant past, Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield. Today, none of these guys could win a Republican primary.

But, back to Castle. A former governor and long-time Congressman, he got himself tagged as “the establishment” candidate in a year when that label hangs like a noose around a candidate’s neck. The woman who beat him, Christine O’Donnell, appears to have one overriding public accomplishment – she is against masturbation and has spoken out often against the same. But, I digress. O’Donnell’s real attack on the genuinely nice guy Castle was to label him a RINO – Republican in Name Only. As one Delaware reporter put it, Castle was “thrown off track by a flash of conservative voter anger and a flood of political rhetoric poisonous to anyone in the middle.”

Republicans appear at the edge of an historic victory this fall, a circumstance driven by worry about the economy, uncertainty about the man in the White House and an old fashioned “throw the bums out” sense of anger. But, anger isn’t a governing strategy, particularly when the party seems to be growing narrower and narrower in its national appeal. As GOP strategist Mark McKinnon notes today, “the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the Establishment) has now backed eight losing candidates. In other words, this grass-roots anti-establishment wave actually threatens the GOP’s chances of taking control of the Senate.”

Democrats, to be sure, have their own intra-party challenges, but somehow the national party has found a way to accommodate conservative Blue Dogs like Idaho’s Walt Minnick and big city liberals like Nancy Pelosi.

Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be in the purge business. The party, much like Democrats in the late 1960’s when insurgents were in control, is a party at war with itself. Republicans will win a lot of elections this fall, but they may wake up the day after the election with an identity hang over and with a party – much like an apartment where too much rough housing has taken place – that is in disarray.

A political party, particularly one that has suffered a big defeat, often must endure an internal battle over its identity. In that respect, the national GOP is playing by the historical rules. What may have lasting consequences, however, is the basic political math. Politics, as the old saying goes, is a game of addition not subtraction.

The purpose of a national party is to attract supporters, not purge them.The GOP’s last great party builder, Ronald Reagan, certainly knew that.

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