Are They Really Blue?

As many of you know, when I left the Republican Party and became a Democrat, Stonewall Democrats had a "coming out" party for me. They considered coming out an appropriate term, because both Democrats and Republicans accused me of being a closet Democrat all along. But that was really not the case. The truth is, I did not leave the Republican Party. It left me.

Thank you for inviting me.
As many of you know, when I left the Republican Party and became a Democrat, Stonewall Democrats had a “coming out” party for me. They considered “coming out” an appropriate term, because both Democrats and Republicans accused me of being a closet Democrat all along. But that was really not the case. The truth is, I did not leave the Republican Party—it left me.
In 1960, I joined a party that believed in limited government and individual liberty—a party concerned above all about abuses of government power. In the year 2000, I left a party that was systematically and enthusiastically abusing government power. I hadn’t changed. The party I had joined in 1960 no longer existed.
What may be less obvious is that the party I didn’t join back then no longer exists either. Before the GOP was captured by the Right, the Democratic Party spent a dozen years or so in a left-wing wilderness, from which it has returned to claim its legitimate roots. Only nutcases like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter could characterize today’s Democratic Party as left-wing socialist. The truth is, the Republicans have abandoned their principles, and the Democrats have returned to theirs.
A lot of Republicans now recognize what has happened to the GOP. Christy Whitman has written a book called “It’s my Party Too.” In a New York Times op-ed, John Danforth described today’s Republican Party as “the political arm of the Christian Right.” Andrew Sullivan, the columnist who is a self-described pro-life, conservative hawk, recently wrote that today’s GOP is “run by a crew of zealots and charlatans who are immune to calls for restraint or moderation or limitations on power.” Several prominent Republicans supported John Kerry for President. And literally hundreds of people who have served in Republican Administrations—Nixon, Reagan, Bush I—have spoken out against the radicalism of George W. Bush, Karl Rove and the rest of what I have come to call the Republican Taliban.
The extremist takeover of the Republican Party has taken a long time and, understandably, a lot of “old-style,” traditional Republican voters have thus far failed or refused to see what was happening. But George W. Bush is making it very difficult to pretend that the GOP is still the party of limited government, free markets, fiscal responsibility or equality before the law. Every day it becomes clearer that the party is being run by an unholy alliance of plutocrats and theocrats.
All you have to do to confirm the transformation is to go down the list of what used to be “traditional Republican values”:
What happened to the party of smaller, more limited government?
·       Well, it’s not smaller. America lost well over a million jobs during the first Bush Administration. That is, we lost a million more jobs than we created. But did you also know that virtually all the job growth that did occur can be explained by the rise in the number of people on the federal government payroll?
·        It sure isn’t limited. This is the Administration that gave us the Patriot Act, and wants Congress to pass Patriot II (or “Son of Patriot Act”), to authorize secret arrests, end consent decrees against illegal police tactics, and give the Attorney General unchecked power to deport foreign nationals. Patriot II would strip citizenship from people who belong to organizations that the Attorney General decides are somehow connected to terrorism. (But that’s okay, because John Ashcroft has been replaced by that nice, moderate Alberto Gonzales, who thinks that the Geneva conventions are “quaint.”)  
How about fiscal responsibility?
·       As Tom Friedman wrote in the NYTimes, this is the Administration that has given us Budgets of Mass Destruction. You can’t say Bush isn’t talented–he inherited a 230 billion dollar surplus, and turned it into a 5 trillion dollar national debt. The “preventive” Iraq war is costing us over a billion dollars a week, even while Bush has cut veteran’s pay and slashed amounts earmarked for military equipment. (There’s a reason those Hummers don’t have armor.) But the Administration hasn’t hesitated to boost spending for really important projects—1.5 billion to promote heterosexual marriage, 77 million to pro-school-voucher groups, 800 million or so to build the capacity of “faith-based” organizations—all while slashing taxes for its big business cronies. Bush may not like welfare for poor people, but he loves corporate welfare.  
·       We all know that George W. Bush isn’t a genius—to put it mildly—but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that massive tax cuts mean less revenue. If a fiscally prudent Administration really believed that tax cuts were the answer to every question including how to cure cancer, as this one seems to believe, it would also reduce expenditures. It would live within its means. But no. Democrats may once have been the party of “tax and spend,” but this is the Administration of “borrow and spend.” Bush is asking my grandchildren and yours to pay for his lack of fiscal discipline.
·       America’s dire fiscal situation isn’t just an outgrowth of Bush’s penchant for “fuzzy math.” It is the result of a demonstrated willingness to rape national resources in the service of power and cronyism. To give just one example, the Administration deliberately lied to Congress—including Congressional Republicans—about the cost of the Medicare amendments, and threatened to fire the actuary doing cost projections if he shared the real numbers with anyone in Congress. 
How about respect for the free market? Surely that is still a bedrock Republican principle? You tell me—how can a commitment to free markets be squared with a 190 billion subsidy to corporate farms, preferential regulations for oil and gas companies, a Medicare bill that is an out-and-out gift to drug and insurance companies, and huge no-bid contracts to cronies like Bechtel and Halliburton?
What about respect for civil liberties and the rule of law?
·       One look at judicial appointments tells that story. Early on, Bush refused to send names of his potential nominees to the ABA, to be rated on their general fitness for the bench—something both Democrat and Republican administrations have done for years.  That’s understandable, since his nominees’ most important “qualification” is ideological compatibility with Scalia and Thomas. 205 of those nominees have been confirmed and are currently sitting. Ten of the most radical have been blocked. Rather than sending better nominees to the hill, however, Bush and Frist have cooked up what has been called the “nuclear option;” if they can’t get everything they want playing by the rules, then they’ll just change the rules. With or without these last ten ideologues, the Administration may be able to put enough right-wing judges on the bench to change America profoundly. Federal judges serve for life, and these radical appointees will shape our rights (or eviscerate them) for decades to come.
The existence of an independent judiciary is our most important guarantor of fair treatment and limited government. One of the most outrageous lies of this administration has been its constant charge that judges who are doing their constitutional duty are “activist.” Of course, when the Supreme Court actually DID overstep its authority in an unprecedented fashion, by deciding Bush v. Gore, I didn’t hear these born-again defenders of separation of powers complaining. When Republicans in Congress overstepped THEIR bounds and intervened in the Terri Shaivo case, I didn’t hear much about federalism or separation of powers, either. A colleague of mine asked me “If a judge who legislates from the bench is an activist, what do you call a legislator who adjudicates from Congress?” I think the answer is “a hypocrite.” (That same colleague did defend the intervention on practical grounds—he reminded me that this Administration needs all the brain-dead Americans it can get.)
Perhaps the most telling comment on this whole debacle came from a bit on The Daily Show. John Stewart and “Senior Ethics Correspondent” Stephen Colbert were discussing Schaivo and the Congressional intervention. Stewart said “I thought Republicans believed in states’ rights.” Colbert just gave him a pitying look, and explained “Yes, John, but that was before they controlled the federal government.”   
·       It isn’t only the unremitting attacks on the courts. Virtually every lawyer working in the Bush Administration is a member of the Federalist Society—an organization devoted to rolling back the last century of constitutional jurisprudence. Like the people Bush has nominated for the federal courts, these people are not simply a bit right of center—they are radical. And they’ve been busy. They have made very strategic use of Executive Orders to implement legal changes that even this pliant Congress refused to approve—most notably, the Faith-Based Initiative, but also roll backs of environmental regulations, elimination of overtime pay for millions of workers, and reductions in workplace health protections.
·       An administration that respects the rule of law does not “out” Valerie Palme as a CIA operative when her husband displeases it. A lawful administration doesn’t operate in secrecy, or refuse to identify the members of the Vice President’s “Energy Task Force.” It doesn’t send out phony “news stories” and pay off columnists and reporters. This is the stuff of totalitarian regimes, not constitutional processes.
·       An administration that respects the Constitution and the Bill of Rights does not engage in a culture war against gays and lesbians. It does not have a Secretary of Education who tells audiences that public schools should “teach Christian values.” It doesn’t have a Parks Director who posts bible verses in the Grand Canyon. An Administration that respects the rule of law does not ignore treaty obligations, or lie about intelligence reports, or send American young people off to die in an ill-conceived war that is creating new terrorists faster than we can capture the old ones.
Today’s GOP opposes reproductive choice, stem cell research, separation of church and state, evolution, and any science that doesn’t support its theocratic agenda. I won’t even talk about the “compassionate” conservatism that has been described as “mugging the needy.”
I could go on, but you get the picture. To paraphrase the Oldsmobile ad, these aren’t your father’s Republicans. The party of Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller has become the party of Pat Robertson and Ken Lay. And that means that Democrats have a golden opportunity to reach traditional Republicans—those who don’t believe that government’s job is either to line the pockets of the President’s cronies or to save souls. Most people—including most Republicans—do not look to politicians to tell them how to conduct their personal affairs, spiritual, sexual or reproductive. We vote for a Commander in Chief, not a Supreme Pastor.
Polls consistently find that large majorities of Americans, Republican and Democrat alike, disagree with this Administration on most issues.  The same polls find that Independents are disgusted with both parties. The question for the Democratic party—the question for all Americans who are appalled at what our country is becoming—is how to convince melancholy Republicans and disgusted Independents to vote Democratic. So let me just conclude these remarks by sharing my perspective on how we do that.
I don’t know how many of you read Bill Bradley’s wonderful op-ed in the NYTimes a month or so ago, but I think he was exactly right. Bradley talked about the fact that the Republicans have built a permanent infrastructure that is there to support and elect whatever candidate emerges—an infrastructure that makes the choice of candidate less important, because the apparatus and message are largely independent of the strengths or weaknesses of an individual candidate. Democratic candidates, on the other hand, have to begin each election cycle by reinventing the wheel—they have to build a new structure for each campaign, and are therefore much more dependent upon the charisma of an individual candidate. There was much more in the column. But where I especially agree with Bradley, is his warning against learning the wrong lesson from defeat, and trying to become “Republican Lite.” It’s wrong for a lot of reasons; first of all, it won’t work—why should Independents vote for Republican Lite when they can have the real thing? But more importantly, it’s wrong because it betrays our most important values, and because it is dishonest.
I am absolutely convinced that American voters are hungry for authenticity. A careful reading of the polls suggests that many people voted for GWB not because they agreed with him, but because they thought he was sincere, that he stood for something. The Democratic Party doesn’t need to change its values; it needs to stand up and defend its values—which have the great virtue of also being traditional AMERICAN values. And it needs to mount that defense with some visible passion. As Bill Maher says, “Ever since Michael Dukakis was asked how he’d feel if his wife got raped and he said ‘whatever,’ Democrats have been the party that speaks softly and carries Massachusetts.” He’s right—and the most encouraging sign I have seen is the growing anger being displayed by thoughtful, reasonable people who are increasingly upset about what is happening to America.
Most people in this country agree with today’s Democrats—not just on policy issues, but also on basic questions of value. What the party has failed to do, in my opinion, is CONNECT THE DOTS. It has failed to make an effective case that a Democratic vote is in fact a vote for people who care deeply about those genuine, traditional American values.
Democrats and most Americans support liberty, equality and human dignity—the values that inform the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Democrats and most Americans agree on the importance of equal treatment and fair play for all citizens. We believe in respect for the rule of law—and we believe that the government is not above that law. We believe in respect for the equal rights of others, whether we agree with them or not. We believe in open minds, respect for dissenting voices, respect for our human capacity to reason, and public deliberations based upon evidence, reason and civility. We believe in civil liberties and inclusion.
These are moral as well as civic beliefs, and they have made America great. These are the principles that have made this country a beacon of liberty and an example to be emulated. When we abandon them, as we are dangerously close to doing, we lose America.
That is the case we must make to Independents and melancholy Republicans. We don’t need to start talking about God or “faith,” but we do need to frame our discussion of the issues in ways that make their connection to those genuine, foundational American values explicit.
When the midterm elections draw near, the Republican Taliban will adopt a much more moderate rhetoric. They will try to make uneasy Republicans and Independents forget how extreme—how anti-American—they really are. Our job is to prevent them from doing that.  We need to remind Americans what these people who have hijacked the language of religion and morality are really all about, and we need to point out with clarity and conviction not only how their positions are bad policy, but how those positions are inconsistent with what it means to be American.
The Shaivo travesty is a good example. People who really believe in a “culture of life” don’t cut Medicaid benefits for poor children; don’t sacrifice American lives in unnecessary wars; don’t keep scientists from using embryos that are going to be discarded anyway in research that will help real, living human beings. People who are really solicitous of due process protections don’t advocate eliminating appeals for persons on death row; they don’t support secretive military tribunals; and they certainly don’t whitewash what happened at Abu Ghraib.
We have to connect those dots. We have to make voters understand that parroting words like freedom and liberty is not the same thing as actually believing in freedom and liberty. Actions speak louder than words. When Tom DeLay engages in public piety to mask private dishonesty and self-dealing, we need to call attention not just to his unethical behavior, but to the disconnect between what he says and what he does, and to his contempt for American values like honesty and hard work. When Mitch Daniels ignores state laws specifying terms for members of Boards and Commissions because he needs to “get things done” or he needs to “get his own team in place,” we need to remind voters that there is more at stake than Republicans and Democrats squabbling; there is something called the rule of law, and most Americans believe that governors are not above that law. Playing by the rules is a time-honored American value.
The bottom line is that in a referendum on values, ours win—IF we can articulate them clearly and defend them with passion and authenticity. And we must, because so much more than political power is at stake here. If we can’t replace these zealots and oligarchs with reasonable, honorable public servants, the America we all grew up in will become a dim memory, and the country our children and grandchildren inherit will be a very different place.
We owe them better than that.
Thank you.