It is therefore somewhat perplexing that so much attention among grassroots Republicans, and again among Tea Party supporters in particular, is paid to identifying, demonizing, and seeking to remove so-called RINOs -- Republicans in Name Only, the pronouncable acronym refering to elected officials and activists who stand in opposition to any of a list of untouchable conservative principles.
While it would produce an equally pronounable acronym, there is no such thing as a Democrat in Name Only. As much as liberals chafe whenever Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) parts ways with the rest of the caucus, the Democratic Party has and continues to be a hodgepodge party where virtually every view manifests in some form at any given time. (That's why the Democrats struggled to accomplish so little after the 2008 election despite technically controlling Congress under a President of their own party: they can never get everyone onboard.)
For Republicans, however, the drive to purify and consolidate the Party is accelerating. That the Tea Party may mount a primary challenge against Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), one of the few remaining moderates in the caucus, is perhaps not surprising; that it is seeking to remove Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the senior Republican in Congress, is more surprising.
Even John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, is not immune: while a challenge against him is unlikely to win enough support to actually vote him out in 2012, numerous Tea Party leaders are talking about making the effort.
Anyone might be designated a RINO: argue that reducing the national debt is more important than adhering to a tax-cut mentality, seek to restrict the flow of corporate cash into elections, and or favor "cap-and-trade" legislation (never mind that this came into being as a Republican alternative to top-down regulation), and it won't matter whether you're a former Reagan advisor or a war hero. You're not welcome.
So fervent is the drive for Party purity that activists denied the Republican Senate nomination in 2010 to Delaware's Mike Castle, a man whose popularity in the state made his election a guarantee, and delivered it instead to Christine O'Donnell, a woman whose singular lack of political accomplishment combined with near-ubiquitous financial mismanagement made her unelectable. It matters far less to the RINO-hunters that the Party lose a seat than that it fill one with someone who isn't 100% in support of the proper agenda.
Regarding what precisely that agenda is, it fluctuates a bit. Opposition to abortion remains paramount while opposition to gay marriage is waning. A belief in "American exceptionalism" is as important to state as it is unimportant to define. American-flag pins are essential, along with professing support for "the troops." For a time, unquestioning committment to "stay the course" in any conflict initiated by the President was a must-have along with a fervent huzzah for the President's claims of authority to initiate conflicts; now that the President is a Democrat, asserting the War Powers Act is en vogue.
One thing that has grown less flexible over time is any nuance on fiscal policy. Today's Republicans must be unquestioningly anti-tax, and the word "tax" has been reimagined to include virtually everything. Repealing a subsidy is imposing a tax. The expiration of temporary tax cuts is a tax increase. Any costs imposed by regulation are taxes. (Higher costs associated with lack of regulation, like those coming from near-monopoly market conditions, are "capitalism.")
But frankly, what the agenda is is not so interesting and bizarre as that adherence to the agenda has become the driving requirement of being a Republican -- which brings us back to the two things held in regard above all others.
Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, is held in esteem by Republicans on a scale that approaches divinity. It is little coincidence that the debate held to identify a new Chairman of the Republican National Committee was a festival of Reagan adoration, or that Reince Priebus was chosen after citing "The Reagan Diaries" as his favorite book. Aligning onesself with the Reagan legacy is a sort of RINO insurance policy.
|Ronald Reagan advocated a "big tent" philosophy for the |
Republican Party and regularly worked across party lines.
Except for one thing: Reagan himself would never had condoned the idea of a RINO. Reagan stood for a "big tent" in which diverse views could be accommodated within the Party; he coined the Eleventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."
Of course, Reagan also didn't demonize the Democratic Congress with which he worked to accomplish all of his signature achievements, including his big tax cuts (and the eleven tax increases he enacted along with a vast expansion of government, but I digress). To Reagan, Democrats were not traitors to America but rather people who, like him, sought what was in the best interest of the country; they differed on the approach but had a common loyalty and interest. Reagan was also facing down the Soviet Union, so it was more problematic for him to assert that half of the country was aligned with the enemy, but there's little reason to think he would have done so anyway.
As for the Founding Fathers, the men who framed the Constitution that Tea Party members carry to their rallies loathed political parties of any sort. A political party is like a labor union except for its focus (politics versus labor); everyone moves together to advance a common agenda. To the extent that the agenda is worth pursuing, unified action might at first glance seem desirable in politics to the same extent that it may be desirable in labor. Even at its best, however, belonging to a party replaces individual experience and character put to the service of the nation with a group mentality that finds itself in conflict between politics and country.
The RINO hunt undertaken by the Tea Party against men and women who place loyalty to their nation ahead of loyalty to a simplistic agenda, and the effect that it has had in hardening the positions of men and women who previously worked across the aisle for the good of the American people, demonstrates this conflict and its danger.
Modern conservatism began as an intellectual counterargument to the liberalism of the New Deal era and was valuable as a means of reflection and debate precisely because liberalism had failed to answer all of our challenges. Alas, conservatives in the twenty-first century have rejected their own academic roots, replacing education and knowledge with soundbite slogans and chants for things that activists rarely comprehend even to the extent that they are true, like the Laffer Curve fundamentals of supply-side economics. Those who learn are "elitists;" those who question as "liberals."
This turn of events is extremely unfortunate for the American people, because no single agenda or ideology can actually address all of the problems that we face. Everyone pulling in different directions but having to nonetheless reach agreement is how we move the country forward. Sitting down and refusing the move is a marker only for stagnation.
But even that is the best-case scenario, because there is another downside for Party purity, one that was hinted in Delaware and will only become more apparent over time: the majority of people do not believe any one ideology. Purifying the Republican Party of its RINOs may motivate the activists at the Tea Party rallies to fervor and excitement, but it will also exclude those who find the groupthink mentality of Party loyalty anathema to American freedom.
Reagan understood this; hence, the "big tent." Today, that tent is shrinking, and only a very specific sort of person is welcome. Republican leaders may revel in the discipline with which they can enact an ideological agenda when they come to power, while their Democratic colleagues struggle to tally votes, but the problem with dividing the population into "us" and "them" is that there are never as many of "us" as there are of "them."
As time passes, Republican leaders who stoked the anger and sparked the RINO hunt will find themselves increasingly subjected to unyielding scrutiny by activists and rally-goers who believe that the soundbites are all that there is. Like Speaker Boehner, they will then face a choice: be purged as RINOs or run on platforms that are so untenable to the American people that they are forever locked out of power by their own power bases.
It's hard to win in the Republican Party where Reagan himself would be a RINO.