When you look back on the great days of the Democratic Party, long gone, one of the things that strikes you is that it had a powerful Southern wing. The states of the old Confederacy were known as the solid South. Still angry at Lincoln, they voted Democratic as a matter of civic religion.
The South contributed some fine statesmen to the Democratic Party: Walter George of Georgia; James Byrnes of South Carolina (who served as secretary of state); the very decent John Sparkman of Alabama, who was Adlai Stevenson’s vice presidential choice in 1952; Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, the crime fighter; the senator’s senator, John Stennis of Mississippi; Lister Hill of Louisiana, who battled to have mental health recognized in federal medical programs; and Constitutionalist Sam Ervin of North Carolina.
And there were great moderates from Southern and border states, led by Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Segregation ultimately doomed the Southern Democrats. They faded away with the coming of the civil rights era. The vulgarity of bigots like Jim Eastland and George Wallace became too much to bear. But, the important racial issue aside, the Southern and moderate Democrats gave balance to the Democratic Party, gave it enormous electoral strength, and strengthened the notion that the genius of American politics lay in its practicality, not in rigid ideology.
I bring this up because we’ve seen what’s happened to the Democrats in the decades since they ejected most of the moderates and Southerners and became, at base, an ideologically left party. And I fear this can happen to the Republicans.
No one is suggesting that a political party be an infinite tent. But it must be a large enough tent to accommodate regional and group differences within a general philosophical position. Not long ago, this was obvious. The Republican Party could have a Barry Goldwater. But it could also be the home of Rudolph Guiliani, who is pro-choice and favors some forms of gun control. Both men were highly respected in their home areas.
We are watching, right now, as moderate Democrats struggle to retain a place in their party, and to defeat the attempt of Nancy Pelosi to keep her leadership role. As Americans, we should cheer them on. American politics is at its best when each party has a clear philosophy, but accepts (and respects) variations on the theme.
There are elements within the Republican Party that are striving for ideological purity – conservatism as they define it. In a way, they are similar to the Democrats’ thought police, who started patrolling the aisles during the late sixties, and gave us such luminaries as Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Bella Abzug. It was during that era that I made my way out of the party, and traveled in the political desert until pulling the lever for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Reagan got it. His political model, after all, wasn’t a Republican, but Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan was a conservative, yet understood the need for reasonable diversity within the party. It was he who enunciated the Republicans’ “11th Commandment” – thou shall not speak ill of any other Republican. He understood what ideological rigidity could cost. He became president in 1980 because he captured the practical middle.
Reagan should be our model, not the stiff-necked ideologists who seem to want the Republicans to follow the Democrats’ recipe for disaster. The purpose of political parties is to win elections, not just hold primaries. Some circumstances may call for strong conservatism, other circumstances may cry out for a modified form. Both are valid.
Two years from today we’ll know the result of the 2012 presidential election. I don’t think this country can risk four more years of Barack Obama. But we’ll have just that unless we present a presidential candidate who can appeal to the broad American center, which is where elections are won. I hope the ideologists have enough sense to understand that.
There is a term for ideologically pure presidential candidates who fail to appeal to the middle ground. They are called asterisks. I am not interested.
from URGENT AGENDA (WWW.URGENTAGENDA.COM)
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