April 30, 2010

Harmon: Does the GOP have a future? Maybe, if it pays attention

There's a growing movement that could become the path through the swamp for the party.

By M.D. Harmon mharmon@mainetoday.com
Editorial Writer

This is adapted from a speech given this week to the Portland Republican Club.


I've been asked to speak on "the future of the Republican Party," but that topic's too varied. There are a wide variety of possible futures for the GOP, including the one in which the party crosses history's event horizon and disappears.

Political parties aren't immortal. They can dwindle as the causes and principles they supported become irrelevant, as the Whigs were replaced by the Republicans in the 1850s.

Or sometimes, like the Democrats, the party's name remains the same even as new beliefs and philosophies take over from the inside in a form of ideological coup. The "progressives" have always been one stream in Democratic history, but now they are pretty much all there is. That's true despite the camouflage the so-called "Blue Dogs" have provided in recent years, bolstering the party in marginal districts but never rising to leadership and influence because their views conflict with the party's hard-left ideology.

This has happened as an evenly divided nation flips its allegiance back and forth between the two parties.

Nevertheless, the GOP has very seldom had the majorities in Washington the Democrats now have, and while those majorities may have a sell-by date, the party is using them like a master fencer's foil to implement its top priorities -- no matter what the polls say Americans think about them.

In one sense, you have to admire the progressives' single-mindedness. They have their goals and they will implement as much of them as they possibly can by whatever means are available to them. If that leaves the opposition feeling steamrollered, well, politics ain't beanbag and you shouldn't be in it if you don't want to fight for what you believe in.

When Sen. Olympia Snowe spoke to this paper's editorial board a few weeks ago, her dismay about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid breaking his personal promise to her to admit amendments to the health care bill was evident.

But how can someone at that level of politics not know by now that those promises were only applicable while Reid needed her vote?

Once he didn't, his pledge was dispensable -- just as dispensable as her vote became in his political calculus.

Snowe may have been relying on the experience of the past, in which comity among senators was a respected practice.

These days, however, winning is the only respected practice among progressives, and they have gotten good at it.

Does that mean that Republicans, if they return to majority status, should copy that ruthless pursuit of power? No, one does not succeed by copying an opponent's flaws, no matter what kind of temporary advantage those flaws have provided.

However, perhaps the day will come when Republicans will be as committed to their principples and goals as Democrats are. Even if that party loses power in November, it will be a long, hard slog to repair the damage it has done, especially the unprecedented deficit burden it has placed on our children and grandchildren.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities. As one analyst noted, Democrats have done something unique in modern times -- they have brought home to the average voter the true cost of government as red ink floods the federal ledger.

That realization is what has spurred tens of thousands of Americans to take to the streets in the tea party movement. That movement -- while just as critical of GOP overspending as of the Democrats' -- still offers a path forward if the party is willing to take it.

If the GOP can become in reality what it always has been in its rhetoric -- the party of fiscal sanity and limited but effective government -- it has a chance of doing something useful with the next opportunity for leadership the electorate may give it.

Tea party attendees were recently profiled by The New York Times, which reported on April 15 that they tend to be Republican, white, older than 45, wealthier, and better educated than the average American.

That led liberal pundits to reject the label "populist" and call them "elitists" instead.

However, as Mara Liason said on Fox News last week, that's also the profile "of the person most likely to vote."

While only about 20 percent of Americans claim to be tea party members, sympathy in the electorate has risen to 58 percent among voters, Rasmussen reported on April 23. And Gallup reported the same day that "the advantage in public support the Democratic Party built up (in the past four years) has all but disappeared," with 46 percent of Americans now saying they were Democrats or leaned that way, compared to 45 percent for the Republicans.

That offers hope, even though that trend's future depends on what the GOP does with it.

Americans will not reject middle-class entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. So, the party needs a unified, clear plan to make those programs fiscally sound and empower individuals instead of government to control them.

The GOP needs to speak out and take effective political action not just for tax cuts but for spending control, too (along the lines of Gov. Chris Christy in New Jersey) -- while holding off Democrats' attempts to impose a value-added tax on all levels of production and consumption as their preferred way to pay the bills they are running up.

If all that happens, the party has a chance of not going the way of the Whigs.

But it's going to be close.


M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or:



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