By Terry Donnelly
I am amused by the spinning and deflecting of Republican officials regarding the election of Democrat Conor Lamb to Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District seat. Lamb won the narrowest of victories, just a few hundred votes, and will serve only about nine months, or less depending on any recounts, due to the district dissolving before the 2018 midterm elections. The point isn’t how long Rep. Lamb serves, it is the fact that a Democrat won in a solid, 20 plus, Republican district that last proved its Conservative bona fides in November of 2016. The voters haven’t changed, but something has.
House majority leader, Paul Ryan and his cronies were quick to come to the podium and claim actual victory saying that Lamb ran as a Republican, inferring that he will vote with the GOP when he finally takes his seat. He may vote with the majority party on some issues. If gun restriction legislation comes along, which isn’t likely, he may vote against any bans. He will vote with liberals on any abortion limiting, Medicare or Medicaid funding, or tax revision. But, modern political spin isn’t the issue here either.
This is about Conor Lamb being a throwback politician who can set an example for others to get political parties to be more inclusive. It has only been since 1980 that political parties have developed into philosophically pure bands of representatives who are skeptical, and even intolerant of having diverse thinking within parties.
Theodore Roosevelt; with his crown achievements being the expansion and preservation of national lands, the creation of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, and his desire for the executive branch to control domestic policy, was the last liberal Republican president in 1909. And, when Woodrow Wilson left office in 1921, he was the last truly conservative Democratic president. Wilson sided strongly with states’ rights thinking and legislation, and appointed Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court with his small federal government court decisions. Beyond discussing presidents from each party, until 1980, there was more political distance between left and right within parties than between parties themselves.
Democrats have had their bouts with wide philosophical splits within their party. In 1968, just five years after the world was rocked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the fairly liberal president, Lyndon Johnson, just four years after a landslide victory, started getting primaried, as we call it today, from his left by anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. After Robert Kennedy joined the race to unseat his own party’s sitting president, LBJ dropped out of the race and another solid, middle-of-the-road liberal, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, got in. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968, as he was moving toward cinching the presidential nomination for his party, the race got thrown into a tizzy. With three possible Democrats from whom to choose: a sitting president who had dropped out of the race, but, given the drastically changed circumstances, could likely have been convinced to run; the sitting vice president, who was already running; and Sen. McCarthy, who held many of Kennedy’s positions on the war and poverty and also still in the running, it was a Republican who hadn’t fully committed to running at all, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who got much of the attention from the grieving Kennedy supporters.
Republican Sen. Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft, was a far right-wing, Freedom Caucus quality conservative Republican between 1920 and 1952. He made a run for the presidential nomination every year starting in 1940. He never got the nod because he was challenged each time by the liberal likes of Thomas Dewey within his own party. Taft’s best chance for nomination came in 1952 after Dewey lost to Harry Truman in 1948. But, Dewey worked tirelessly to convince war-hero Dwight Eisenhower to run as a much more moderate conservative. Eisenhower barely beat out Taft at the Republican convention.
From 1964 to 1980 there were epic battles in the Republican party between the ultra-Conservative faction and those called “moderates” but whose politics would align nicely with many Democratic liberals of today. The conservatives, led by Barry Goldwater, who suffered a disastrous defeat in his campaign for president in 1964, William F. Buckley, and upstart politician Ronald Reagan, pitted themselves against the likes of Rockefeller and John Lindsay, both New Yorkers advocating for federal housing for the poor, Medicare, federal funds to education, and federal funding for the arts; Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, who was a critical asset in passing the 1960s civil rights legislation; and Michigan Governor George Romney. The policy divides between Goldwater and Rockefeller were wider than the divides between today’s Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. This schism is what allowed a conniving shrewd, amoral candidate, Richard Nixon, to wedge his way into the party presidential nomination, eventually get elected, and then was forced to resign in disgrace six years later.
After Ronald Reagan’s success in 1980, both parties developed strong bases of political thinking that have more and more forced a single party agenda forgoing parties that hold diverse ideologies that allow diverse populations to feel welcome. Today’s strict adherence to party purity funnels select groups of people to one party or the other making for segregated blocs of voters holding forth and defending a preconceived agenda that leaves little room for compromise, and worse, no room for innovation.
Pennsylvania’s new Representative, Conor Lamb, may seem like a catch to some Republicans, or an omen for a blue tsunami of electees to Democrats. But, it would be great for both parties if his attitude toward politics would spread to other candidates, causing them to represent the fabric of their constituencies and head off to Congress with the mindset of getting work do.
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