May good fortune shine on Progressive Republicans

by Bill McGaughey

2008 Republican national convention at Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota

Many Americans are deeply troubled by the nation’s politics and by the two major parties especially. Both seem to have been captured by deep-pocketed special interests. Contentious social and cultural issues advanced within these two parties keep people divided and angry. Political discussion is highly polarized. It seems that our elected officials are incapable of addressing problems in realistic, non-contentious ways.

Many people, including myself, have believed that supporting a third party could bring us out of this political morass. In Minnesota, the Independence Party and Green Party have both achieved a measure of electoral success. However, from an Independence Party perspective, we have been through three state elections since Jesse Ventura’s amazing campaign victory in which the party has run strong candidates for Governor but finished, at best, in low double digits.

In my opinion, the Independence Party’s failure to build a strong grassroots movement dooms it to disappointing electoral results. To build a strong grassroots movement requires standing for something that is important to people. Merely being a centrist party and adopting certain “good government” policies are not enough. You need issues.

Remember that when Ross Perot started the Reform Party in 1992, he embraced two sturdy, politically balanced planks: (1) concern for reducing the deficit, and (2) opposition to NAFTA and free trade. The Independence Party remains faithful to the first objective but not to the second.

There are so many causes out there in which people deeply believe but which fail to find a home in partisan politics. Some of them are the 9/11 truth movement, legalizing marijuana, the peace movement, shorter-workweek advocacy, and opposition to free trade. The energy and passion are there but not the supporting structure in electoral politics. Causes that matter to people have been marginalized by the two parties and the major media.

An alternative to third-party politics is to create strong dissenting, centrist factions in the two major parties. We have the conservative “blue dog” Democrats (who sustained some major hits in this year’s Congressional election) and a few surviving liberal, moderate, or progressive Republicans. These people, too, are more or less in the middle of the political spectrum.

Bob Carney and I ran in Minnesota’s 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary as progressive Republicans and finished second among four candidates, well behind Tom Emmer. Many Republicans of a moderate persuasion supported Tom Horner, the Independence Party candidate. He finished a distant third with 12 percent of the general-election vote. Still, that redirected vote may well have been the margin of Mark Dayton’s victory over Emmer.

Having affliated with the Independence Party of Minnesota for the past decade, I agreed to run for Lieutenant Governor in this year’s Republican primary primarily out of friendship with Bob Carney, the gubernatorial candidate. Having been through the process, however, I now think Carney’s on to something with his progressive Republican stance. It now seems to me that a faction within the Republican Party called “progressive” can be a political home for some of the causes currently outside the political mainstream. Progressive Republicans can sustain a grassroots movement by standing for policy proposals, even controversial ones, in areas that matter to people.

I have created a website that puts together a package of sixteen issues which I think could belong to a progressive Republican platform. Each is differentiated from what Democrats and conservative Republicans embrace. At the bottom of the opening page is a cute cartoon picture of our mascot, “Ray the RINO”. When Ray grows up, he’ll be a formidable contender.

More seriously, the progressive Republican tradition can boast of U.S. Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. On the state level, it can boast of Minnesota Governors such as Harold Stassen, Elmer L. Anderson, Harold LeVander, Al Quie, and Arne Carlson. I’d match these elected officials against today’s Republican crop any day.

what about Reagan?

The Republican Party today remains under the spell of Ronald Reagan and the conservative politics that reached a peak during his Presidency. Having lived through that period, I think I can understand Reagan’s appeal. I, too, admired him. Why? Because he stood for something. Because he endured ridicule and scorn for holding fast to his beliefs.

Remember, Ronald Reagan at the time was considered a mere actor. The idea was that his chief talent lay in smoothly reciting a script. Reagan therefore had no intellectual depth, no capacity for independent thinking. Take away his cue cards and he would be lost. What a surprise it was, then, to many people that Reagan became a highly successful two-term President. He even managed to win the Cold War.

At the time, back in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative Republicans were considered to be persons wallowing in past delusions. The term, “Neanderthal”, was often used to describe them. Conservative Republicans were a species that would soon become extinct, the knowledgeable people thought.

That, however, said more about their opponents than it did about conservatives. Their opponents in the Republican Party, the moderates, were rather smug individuals who chose to dismiss the conservative position than treat it with respect. Calling someone a “Neanderthal” meant that you did not have to take his ideas seriously. You just gave him a short, contemptuous smile and then resumed the serious business of governing.

I remember back in those times the ascendant moderates and progressives were toying with the idea that partisan politics might be passé. In a technologically advanced society, technocrats rather than career politicians perhaps made the best rulers. Political ideologies could serve no constructive end. But then a conservative ideologue and an actor to boot, Reagan, came along and proved these people wrong. Being on the wrong side of history, history somehow went his way.

Maybe liberal or progressive Republicans have an image problem dating back to those times. They were the self-styled respectable people. They were the leaders of business and the professions. But that also made them distant from ordinary people. Their respectability kept them from taking gutsy political positions as Reagan did. They were telling people that issues no longer mattered. (Trust us with the competence and maturity to govern.) They therefore squandered their advantage while the more hungry conservatives advanced.

History turns in strange ways. Reagan, the battle-tested conservative, has been gone for more than six years. His ideological heirs did not have to go through the same humiliating ordeal as he. Hooked up with the forces of Big Money, these conservative Republicans have settled comfortably in the governing party’s chair. Now it is they, rather than moderates, who treat their opponents with disdain. “RINOs” are what they call the moderates of their party; and “progressives” are even worse. The RINO, whose homonymic partner is a rhinoceros, is this generation’s version of “Neanderthal”. It is a creature that has scarcely evolved beyond the dinosaur.

And so this all looks familiar. The two ideological positions have merely switched sides. What was appropriate for one generation may not be for the next. Today, what we need is more compassion for the poor. We need a longing for peace rather than war. We need to hold the leaders of business and finance accountable to human society. This means that the moderate or progressive Republican position is coming to be more in line with the times.

No, history did not “end” with the end of the Cold War. We will not be people who smugly assume that it did and our ideology won. Just see whose picture is on the Chinese currency that grows stronger against the dollar each passing year.

Besides Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Theodore Roosevelt, I would nevertheless propose that Ronald Reagan be enlisted as a progressive Republican hero. It is not Reagan’s ideas but Reagan the man who might now be embraced. For, we are in that time that Reagan was in before he became President. Our type of political character is likewise presumed to be on the verge of extinction. Now it is up to us to show the toughness of character to persevere in our beliefs, as Reagan did.

Like Reagan, we need to state our beliefs forthrightly, keep smiling, and tell jokes every now and then. For Reagan was a role model for persons of all political persuasions who are treated unkindly by the pampered champions of the status quo. His economic and social views may be different than ours but this one-time actor could teach us a few things politically.

Bill McGaughey was the candidate of the Indepependence Party for Congress in Minnesota's 5th Congressional district in 2008. He received 22,300 votes, or 7% of the total, in a race with Democratic and Republican candidates.