Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Adventures in conformity, GOP-style

When Sen. Arlen Specter left the Republican Party for the Democrats last week, "good riddance" was uttered near and far, particularly on the AM radio dial.

Specter was a RINO —Republican in Name Only — said partisan puritans. He was pro-choice. He supported the Obama stimulus package. The party is stronger for the purging of him and his ilk, they said.

Yes. And a team that's stubby-legged and pasty-faced will reach the NBA finals.

Actually, the correct answer: no. The GOP is not stronger. In fact, it's a lot weaker, and not just because a skinny-legged senator with much seniority took his game elsewhere.

It's weaker because of Rush Limbaugh. It's weaker because of Karl Rove. It's weaker because of rhetorical bombs and bombast. It's weaker because warring words, rather than consensus-seeking actions, have come to define it.

While the Democrats have a speechwriter's dream, Barack Obama, serving as their face, and the nation's, the increasingly minority party has the cigar-chomping Limbaugh serving as its own.

Obama projects hope and competence. Limbaugh projects bile and comeuppance.

While Obama projects healing and inclusiveness, Limbaugh thrives on divisiveness and innuendo (yeah, let's blame illegal aliens for an alien strain of flu, if we can't blame Democrats).

Once upon a time in politics, this worked. Wedge issues did their job. That's why Rove had a job in the White House.

Increasingly, these days, wedge issues simply drive centrists away.

Specter long was a target for refusing to play the hyperbole games of the religious right. If you aren't for banning abortion, something most Americans say they don't want to do, then you are "pro-abortion."

Actually, most polls show Republicans are decidedly ambivalent about how far they want government to go relative to reproductive rights.

If you think gays and lesbians have human rights by virtue of being human, then you "want to tear down the family," says the GOP party line.

Say what you will, but a recent Washington Post poll found that 49 percent of Americans support gay marriage (a 13 percent surge over three years), compared to 46 percent who don't.

A poll by the same paper found only 21 percent of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans. Maybe the Republicans need to identify themselves with other things.

They didn't identify themselves with fiscal responsibility when they were in a position to act it out in Washington. They put tax cuts and military spending first, and everything else last.

Now they're talking about debt and runaway spending. But when in a position to do something about it, they pooh-poohed deficits. They were like CEOs of leveraged businesses who were turning just enough profit to keep their bonuses coming.

Meanwhile, the Roves and the Limbaughs kept hammering at those old wedge issues — immigration, abortion, gay rights — and more and more political moderates who once felt comfortable in the Republican Party started feeling queasy.

For the lack of someone to lead it away from its baser impulses, the party of Eisenhower, Goldwater, Dirksen, Rockefeller and Taft has become the party of Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Beck and Boortz.

John Young's column appears Thursday, Sunday and occasionally Tuesday. E-mail: jyoung@wacotrib.com.

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