What Is Today’s Republican Party?

Dec 17, 2016 by

As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to see what’s become of my party.

There’s a lot of angst. Some Republicans unhappy with the drastic veer to the right have left the party—while others with a blow-it-up attitude are ecstatic.

The Democratic Party is having its own identity crisis but since I’ve never been affiliated with that party, I’ll focus on my experience.

When I was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1996, the Democratic Party had been in control for 122 years. Republicans picked up the five seats needed to take over, giving them a thin 61-59 majority.

The dominoes started falling. Conservative Democrats—mostly from rural areas—started switching party registration. Legislators who won as Democrats switched parties in office. The party in power tends to stay in power so Republican registration swelled—as did our majorities in both legislative chambers, the executive branch and the judicial branch.

Republicans tasted power and were determined to keep it. Therein lies the problem.

While seeking power, the party welcomed voters and candidates with open arms. Republicans had a shared set of beliefs but also a tolerance for differing opinions. We were going to do things differently—more open, more inclusive. To borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, we were compassionate conservatives.

We started off strong but it didn’t last long. When our majority was slim, every legislator’s vote was significant. As the majority grew, the decisions became more centralized. The Democrats became inconsequential when Republicans reached a two-thirds majority. The battle turned inward.

Republicans fought each other for leadership posts and proximity to power. Factions formed and legislators competed to be the most conservative, the most religious, the most pro-life, the most pro-law enforcement, the most fiscally prudent, the most business-friendly. The party moved further to the right.

The shrinking presence and influence of the Democratic Party forced Republicans to find common enemies for legislators and the party’s base to rally against. Lobbyists and political consultants who supported Democrats for decades were switching allegiances.

The long-time constituencies that continued to align with or contribute to the Democratic Party—the unions, government employees, public school personnel, environmentalists and trial lawyers became targets.

The rhetoric got heated. Republicans railed against the enemy and mocked their distorted views. The more red meat they threw, the more the party’s base wanted. Right-wing media really took off and successfully created villains by demonizing anyone who didn’t think like “we” do.

Republicans who weren’t fully on board were pejoratively called RINOs—Republicans in name only. Traits that used to be admired and valued like civility, cooperation, negotiation and compromise became dirty words.

Some of us started to feel uncomfortable. The party was moving further and further to the right without us. Even some legislators who engaged in the red meat rhetoric were surprised by the result.

Sadly, demonizing others, questioning their motives and name-calling became common practice. Lost in this was the fact that we are all Americans and supposed to be on the same team.

I’m not motivated by anger, hatred and fear mongering and think these have been extremely destructive to our society and our political process.

Policy should be fact-based and in the best interest of our state—not the best interest of our party or its largest donors. The parties should work together for win-win solutions instead of those in power declaring, “we won and to the victor go the spoils,” leaving out half the voters.

My principles and beliefs used to match up well with the party’s, but that’s no longer the case. While in the Florida Senate, I joined with some other Republican senators to fight our own leadership on policies we adamantly opposed. We won but there was a price to pay for those victories.
Today’s Republican Party wants to win at all cost. It is disciplined, strategic and demands loyalty. Republicans stay in power because their members fall in line, they sing off the same hymnal and religiously turn out to vote even if they don’t love their candidate.

The party is losing me with its tone, tactics and intolerance, but still I’ve stayed. I’m often asked if I still feel comfortable as a Republican. Quite frankly, the answer is no.

How can someone who believes that we have a responsibility to address climate change feel comfortable? There’s not a lot of room for those advocating environmental protection, criminal justice reform, public transportation, infrastructure investment, an impartial judiciary, public education — or for those opposing corporate welfare, privatizing prisons and voter suppression efforts.

I may be too independent-minded to stay in such a rigid environment. I don’t hate President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Democrats, minorities, gays, and those who don’t share my religious views.

As a syndicated columnist, I’ve tried to educate voters on the issues in a nonpartisan, fair and factual way while building a case for my opinion. I receive a lot of feedback from around the state—nearly all of it positive from those identifying themselves as No-Party-Affiliated voters, Independents or Democrats. The Republican responses are a mixed bag.

Former Republicans tell me they finally left because the party no longer speaks for them. Some Republicans say they were planning to leave but felt better knowing another Republican shares their views.

Some disappointed Republicans question my loyalty to the party or call me a RINO. I’m no longer offended by that term; in fact, I’ve come to realize it’s true. I’m still holding on to a party that has left me.

And if I start to doubt that, I’m reminded by the hateful rants from a few angry Republicans who claim to be the new face of the party—and, unfortunately, they are.

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