Friday, March 23 , 2018, 7:53 pm | Fair 59º


Mark Shields: Republicans Saw Off the Atlantic Seaboard

Politics is always a matter of addition, not subtraction, and the GOP is losing out

You call Tom Rath, the former New Hampshire state attorney general and longtime Republican national committee member, because he is smart and he is quotable. Rath was upset that, after five terms in the U.S. Senate as a Republican, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter — for his own political survival — had left their party to join the Senate Democratic majority: “Forty-five years ago, Barry Goldwater so disliked the Eastern establishment that he proposed sawing off the Atlantic Seaboard. In 2009, that’s what the Republican Party is finally doing.”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Don’t just take his word for it. Listen to this from a prominent national Republican: “You can walk from Canada to Mexico and from Maine to Arizona without ever leaving a state with a Democratic governor. ... And on the East Coast, you can drive from North Carolina to New Hampshire without touching a single state in between that has a Republican in the U.S. Senate.”

Those are not the musings of an academic — they are the blunt words from a speech to the Republican National Committee by the GOP’s Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who warned: “(T)he Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one. In politics, there’s a name for a regional party — it’s called a minority party.”

McConnell’s concerns were rejected by the nation’s most popular radio talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh, who upon receiving news of the conversion, urged Specter to take Sen. John McCain and his daughter, Meghan, with him.

Contrast this with what a Democratic Party leader told me in 1995 when then-Colorado U.S. Sen. Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell, the Senate’s only Cheyenne tribe member with a fondness for bolo ties and driving a motorcycle around Washington, deserted the Democrats for the GOP: “When the one Indian in the Senate with a ponytail and a Harley leaves your side to become a Republican, you know your party’s in real trouble.”

Lindsay Graham of South Carolina apparently believes, unlike Limbaugh, that politics is a matter of addition and not subtraction. Graham told Fox’s Greta Van Susteren: “Here’s the challenge for the Republican Party. Can the person running in Pennsylvania win? ... I can’t win in Pennsylvania. Rush Limbaugh can’t win in Pennsylvania. If you’re worried about turning the country over to the Democratic Party and not being a vibrant, relevant Republican Party, we need to find somebody that can win in Pennsylvania.”

Which brings us to an iron rule: The vitality of a political party, or any organization to which people voluntarily belong, can be accurately measured by whether that party is spending its time, effort and energy seeking and welcoming converts or exposing and banishing heretics.

In 1980, the Republicans under Ronald Reagan’s leadership were recruiting with open arms disaffected members of the opposition. Remember “Reagan Democrats”? In 2008, Barack Obama repeatedly courted Republicans and other non-Democrats to his campaign and cause. His efforts were rewarded in November when he carried independents, suburbanites and Catholic voters.

Those avenging Republicans who might prefer the recreation of another Salem tribunal must first confront these numbers. In 2005, there were 55 Republicans in the U.S. Senate. And with Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota almost certain to eventually be seated, there are now only 40 Republican senators. In 2005, there were 232 Republicans in the U.S. House. Today, there are 178.

Barely five years ago, according to the authoritative Pew national poll, 33 percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats and 30 percent self-identified as Republicans — just a three-point difference and almost within the margin of error. In 2009, 35 percent proclaim themselves Democrats, while Republican identification has slipped badly to 22 percent — opening up a 13-point gap.

Rath and Graham, two grown-up politicians, understand from personal experience in the arena what too many in their party do not: Politics is always a matter of addition, not subtraction.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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