If Reagan Tolerated GOP Moderates, Why Can't Today's Conservatives?

Two recent events have served to highlight some of the problems facing the Republican Party as it gropes its way forward toward an uncertain future.

The defection of Arlen Specter and the death of Jack Kemp both highlight in their own way the biggest question that will face the GOP for the foreseeable future: whether to build a majority party based on an ever-narrowing definition of who can join and receive support from the Republican Party or accept that there are different kinds of Republicans in different areas of the country who should have a say in party affairs.

Arlen Specter's defection says little about the GOP and much more about Specter himself, whom liberal Jonathan Chait referred to as an "unprincipled hack." Nevertheless, Specter's move across the aisle has intensified the conversation over ideological purity in the Republican Party and set off a bitter debate among conservatives and moderates over tactics and strategy.

Also, the death of former Congressman and 1996 vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp has reminded some conservatives that the GOP used to be a party that featured a much bigger tent, welcoming politicians like Kemp into the fold despite large disagreements on fundamental issues. During his political career, Kemp broke with the conservative base on "red-lining" by banks (discriminating against minorities in their lending practices), poverty programs, and, most notably, immigration reform. He was proud of his association with more moderate Republicans like Pete Dupont and counted many Democrats among his friends.

To say that Kemp would have been drummed out of the conservative movement today for his support for illegal alien amnesty is self-evident. But here was a politician who helped turn Ronald Reagan's ideas into policy, someone who probably agreed with the conservative base 90% of the time. How can any party or movement that seeks majority status so blithely dismiss conservatives like Kemp and refuse them a seat at the table?

The fact that there are many in the party who actually think it a good idea to shrink the GOP by subtracting less conservative, less ideological, more moderate members is incomprehensible. In the minority already, draining the Republican Party of anyone who fails to demonstrate what many conservative activists determine as sufficient enthusiasm for their agenda strikes me as madness.

It's not that the activists don't have a point. Tossing aside conservative principles and running candidates who offer little in the way of contrast to the Democrats would be useless. But at the same time, there has got to be some recognition that the party must expand beyond the 30% or so of the electorate who identify themselves as "conservative." Otherwise, you condemn the GOP to permanent minority status -- a regional, monochromatic grouping that would exist largely in the south and pockets of the Midwest and Mountain West.

To clarify, if the reason one holds to conservative principles is something beyond idly exercising one’s brain, it should be obvious that one of the purposes of conservatism is that it be realized as a governing philosophy. For that to happen, conservatives need a political vessel to translate thought into actions. This is where the Republican Party comes into play and why looking for reasons to include people rather than inventing reasons to exclude those with whom they disagree must be the number one goal for both activists and party regulars.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele is trying. But his comments at a recent party conclave in Wisconsin point up the difficulty in translating that idea into any kind of practical program:

"All you moderates out there, y'all come. I mean, that's the message," Steele said at a news conference. "The message of this party is this is a big table for everyone to have a seat. I have a place setting with your name on the front.

"Understand that when you come into someone's house, you're not looking to change it. You come in because that's the place you want to be."

Eh ... OK. Everyone can come in and sit down for the feast but if you are pro-choice, or pro-gay marriage, or pro-amnesty, kindly realize that no one is going to listen to you so you might as well keep your mouth shut. Meanwhile, your cousins and other relations can publicly chastise you for your different opinions, actively seek to undermine your re-election by running a primary challenger against you, deny you party support, and will stay at home on election day so a Democrat will probably defeat you anyway.

An exaggeration? Not by much if you listen to many conservatives on talk radio and the internet. For these activists, war has been declared on those they consider "establishment" Republicans or "elitists." Just what makes these animals dangerous is never articulated to a satisfactory degree. Sometimes, the transgression is as small as praising President Obama for something he's done. More serious violations include working with Democrats in Congress to solve problems, being pro-choice, or daring to say that the party has become too ideological and even too conservative to win in many states and districts around the country.

Activists and ideologues will tell you that they want candidates to adhere to "first principles" and that anyone who strays from their narrow interpretation of those principles should be shown the door. But is our understanding of these principles an intellectual monolith that brooks no deviation and no independent thought about what they actually mean? Can Republicans from differing parts of the country define these principles in different ways and still be thought of as party members?