Sometimes retirees are out of touch. But sometimes they’re freer to tell the truth. And that’s what happened when GOP mandarins Bob Dole and John Warner fired off warning flares about the rightward drift of the Republican Party.
Former presidential nominee Dole captured most of the attention when he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that the Republican National Committee should hang “a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs until New Year’s Day next year’ and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas.”
That’s tough stuff coming from a 90-year-old. But wait, there’s more. Dole frankly admitted that today’s Republican Party probably would not have room for him and even for Saint Ronald Reagan.
“I doubt it,” Dole said. “Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it, because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.”
This dose of cold water confirms what many columnists and historians have been saying in the face of growing party purges and policy litmus tests: the GOP has moved more and more outside the mainstream of America, not just in terms of 21st-century culture and demographics, but also in relation to its own history.
Virginia’s former five-term Republican senator John Warner cast the coldest shoulder to his party’s gubernatorial team, refusing to endorse what is perhaps the most right-wing statewide ticket in recent memory—composed of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Pastor E.W. Jackson—for reasons of extremism.
“The strength of America’s political system rests in the strength of having two viable, strong parties in stiff competition,” Warner told the Richmond Times Dispatch in a phone interview. “Today each person has to make up their own mind. I’m concerned about the relative competitive strength of the two parties.”
This is a practical concern, especially in a swing state like Virginia. Recently Republican-dominated, today the Dominion State has two centrist Democrat senators, and Obama has won the state twice. But Republicans hold the governor’s mansion, and they are looking to extend their statehouse streak with the Cuccinelli-Jackson ticket—and that’s a real problem.
As The Washington Post’s Right Turn blogger, Jennifer Rubin, wrote in April, “Republican Ken Cuccinelli is going to have a heck of a time persuading women as well Northern Virginian moderates to vote for him. His record on social issues (trying to stop prohibitions on gay discrimination at state schools, mandatory ultrasounds, etc.) fits easily into the ‘war on women’ or ‘right-wing fanatic’ attack that Democrats are adept at.”
Politics are perception, but in Cuccinelli’s case, policies are the problem. As attorney general, he has been focused primarily on social-conservative culture-war issues ranging from abortion to immigration, homosexuality, sex education, and climate-change denial. And the selection of E.W. Jackson as Cuccinelli’s running mate made a concerted attempt to turn the campaign conversation from social issues to jobs much more difficult.
BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski compiled a useful list of Jackson’s top 10 anti-gay statements, and the hits don’t stop on that topic. Jackson has said, “Liberalism and their ideas have done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and slavery and Jim Crow ever did, now that’s a fact” and that Democrats have “an agenda worthy of the Antichrist.” To top it all off, Jackson has piled on the Muslim-Marxist bandwagon with abandon, saying, “Obama clearly has Muslim sensibilities. He sees the world and Israel from a Muslim perspective.”
Pointing out that the Cuccinelli-Jackson ticket is probably the most extreme in modern memory will get otherwise proud Republicans called RINOS or drummed out of the party entirely. But that’s when it’s worth pointing out that Reagan refused to support Anita Bryant’s anti-gay bill in California back in the 1970s and that he was the first president to welcome a same-sex couple to stay overnight in the White House. Conservative icon Barry Goldwater’s wife cofounded Planned Parenthood in Arizona and so he would presumably have taken issue with Cuccinelli and Jackson’s descriptions of the organization being racist and promoting genocide in the black community.
So Warner’s and Dole’s warnings for the GOP are worth taking seriously. These are two proud Republicans who represent a Main Street tradition rooted in the center-right policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and they are right to worry about the march of their party out of the American mainstream. When ex-senator Olympia Snowe echoes Warner’s concerns by saying, “The Republican Party is undergoing some significant and serious changes and they are going to have to rethink their approach as a political party and how they are going to regroup and become a governing majority party that appeals to a broader group of Americans than they do today,” it’s easy to dismiss her as a northeast Republican disconnected from the GOP base. But Warner is from Virginia and Dole is from Kansas. They cannot be accused of representing such regional concerns.
Burning down the Big Tent causes long-term electoral problems, especially in a country that is increasingly diverse, not less. The conservative criticisms of Gov. Chris Christie for even appearing with President Obama on the Jersey Shore are a symptom of this sickness. Another symptom is an anemic and overwhelmingly negative policy agenda, more focused on what the party opposes that what it is for.
But because so many elected Republicans are scared to death of being attacked in a primary from the right, they keep silent in the face of a rising conservative populism that they know does not represent the best traditions of what was once the Party of Lincoln. And so we see former elected officials speaking out with more moral clarity on this issue than serving congressmen, who seem to be suffering from a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.
The alternative is as pragmatic as it is principled—a logic laid out by a former GOP congressman with a perspective whose credibility is perhaps strengthened by his comparative youth: “I like winning,” Joe Scarborough said Tuesday. “I definitely am a RINO in that respect, my dear howling friends. I like to win … I don’t know if you knew this or not—the idea in elections is to get more votes than the other side.” Or, to put it in language that might resonate even more with the base: the essence of evangelism is winning converts.