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The Talk Show Party

The Talk Show Party

By Pierre Atlas - June 2, 2009

The Republican Party is in trouble, and it's not Colin Powell's fault.

The Republican Party was once home to a broad swath of Americans who were united by their belief in limited government, personal responsibility, and a strong national defense. The Grand Old Party in the days of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush proudly billed itself as an inclusive "Big Tent." The most enthusiastic spokesman for this welcoming party was the late Jack Kemp, who passed away earlier this month. The former Congressman, vice presidential nominee and HUD Secretary liked to call himself a "bleeding-heart conservative." He celebrated (not just tolerated) diversity. He had a genuine empathy for the poor and the economically marginalized. And he saw those on the "other side" of an issue as worthy opponents in the great democratic game, not existential enemies.

In its heyday, the Big Tent of Reagan, the first Bush, and Kemp had room for socially moderate as well as socially conservative Republicans, foreign policy realists and not just neocons. It was a time when people like Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, and General Colin Powell were seen as "good Republicans," people the party was proud to showcase at their nominating conventions. Yes, both were pro-choice moderate Republicans of the northeastern variety. That was one of the great strengths of the inclusive--and winning--"Reagan coalition."

But the party's Big Tent has since collapsed. Moderate Republicans are barely tolerated and are perhaps an endangered species. Most Americans, however, are moderate and pragmatic in their political views. Not surprisingly then, in the past two election cycles the increasingly ideological Republican Party has shrunk dramatically-in size, in stature, and in national appeal. According to a Gallup poll released on May 18, support for the GOP has dropped considerably in almost every demographic category. The only categories that remain majority Republican are "frequent churchgoers" and self-identified "conservatives." These are not the demographics of a nationally viable party. In 2001, according to Gallup, support for the Republican and Democratic Parties was evenly split. Today, 53% of Americans self-identify as Democrats and only 39% identify as Republicans.

Today's GOP often seems angry and intolerant. Yes, there are still some responsible and thoughtful conservatives in elective office, including my own state's Mike Pence, Dick Lugar, and Governor Mitch Daniels. But strangely, in addition to the dour and fear-mongering former Vice President Dick Cheney, the party's loudest and seemingly most influential voices are the demagogic talk show personalities Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck--men who have never tossed their hat into the political ring and thus have never been held accountable to any electorate.

Neither Cheney nor those TV and radio celebrities ever served a day in uniform, yet all were "chicken-hawk" cheerleaders for the war in Iraq, and all have been quick to attack a retired 4-star general and decorated combat vet who was justifiably reluctant to use force. As someone who was proud to enlist in the US Army under Commander-in-Chief Ronald Reagan, I personally find the way Powell has been treated by Cheney, Limbaugh and others to be highly offensive. Powell was not the only honorable Republican who openly supported Barack Obama in 2008. Chuck Hagel comes to mind as another example. Rather than asking why prominent as well as rank-and-file Republicans voted Democratic last November, the self-anointed party "leaders" seem eager to drive all the moderates out of the GOP--even if it means driving the party into the political wilderness.

But the conservative ideologues should recall that the Republican Party reached its post-Reagan zenith in 1994 with Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America," which deliberately left out any divisive social issues like abortion. Gingrich, an ardently pro-life conservative but a smart political pragmatist, understood that for the GOP to take on the Democrats and win nationally, it needed a Big Tent platform of broad inclusion, not a writ of ideological purity. And the strategy worked: the Democrats lost their four-decade hold on the House of Representatives.

Gingrich, in a thinly veiled slap at Cheney, Limbaugh and others, told The New York Times this week, "I don't think anybody has the authority to read anybody out of a free party. Having started my career in Georgia when there were no Republicans and we were eager to show up, and having been in the House for 15 years as a member of the minority, I'll tell you if we didn't have moderates, we would never have become a majority party. You can't be a national party without internal tension."

In the aftermath of its trouncing in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the Republican Party is in disarray. Now, with the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Republicans are in danger of turning legitimate "advice and consent" into yet another gratuitous act of self-marginalization. Dismissing an up-from-her-bootstraps Hispanic federal judge with 17 years' experience on the bench as a "racist," a "bigot," and a "hack," as the college dropout Limbaugh has done, won't win much sympathy for the party, nor will it stop her nomination. But it could help to alienate the GOP even further from the fastest growing ethnic minority in the United States.

Rather than attacking Colin Powell for not being a "true" Republican, the GOP instead should be channeling Jack Kemp, a man whose political biography embodied Big Tent Republicanism. "The only way to oppose a bad idea is to replace it with a good idea," Kemp was fond of saying. The Republican Party of 2009 has yet to articulate good ideas-but it is highly unlikely that any good ideas will come from the likes of angry and politically unaccountable talk show celebrities.

Pierre Atlas is an associate professor of political science and director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian University.

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