From ‘big tent’ to ‘pup tent’ GOP

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Ph.D., is retired Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and co-creator of the podcast Inside Golden State Politics

Co-authored by Douglas Jeffe. Originally published at Politico.

When
you analyze the dysfunctional politics in Washington and Sacramento you can
clearly see that a real problem is that there just aren’t enough Republicans –
moderate Republicans. As with most trends – good and bad – you can point to
California as the place where the demise of moderate GOP lawmakers took root.

What
difference does it make? Plenty.

Today’s
dominant strain of Republicanism views government as the enemy, something to be
shrunk and defeated, not to be fixed. Democrats, with their dependence on the
political largesse of public-employee unions, are constrained by the status quo
and lack the bipartisan partners necessary to pursue constructive improvements
in the way services are delivered and to tackle the economic realities.

Business
has no place to go to push for a positive agenda. In Washington, as well as in
Sacramento and other state capitals across the country, hyper partisanship reigns
and gridlock persists.

When
California’s Legislature was in its prime, in the 1960s and ’70s, moderate
Republicans were partners in pushing for education and infrastructure
improvements and enlightened civil rights and mental health legislation.
Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan rallied conservatives, but he also pursued a broader
"big tent" political strategy – with appeals to the center, including
independents and working-class Democrats.

After
Reagan, however, the California GOP became one of the first to follow a "pup
tent" as opposed to a "big tent" strategy. Rather than striving to include
independents and working-class Democrats, as well as Republicans, the GOP is
now increasingly based on devout conservatives, who heed a strict party line.

In
Washington, it used to be that old pros like Senate Republican leaders Everett
Dirksen, Howard Baker and Bob Dole worked with presidents of both parties to
achieve honorable compromises that moved the nation forward. In today’s toxic
political environment, the Republican center and, to a certain extent, the
Democratic center, are missing in action.

In
1968, California Sen. Tom Kuchel, a popular Republican moderate, was up for
reelection. But he lost in the primary to ultra-conservative State
Superintendent of Public Instruction Max Rafferty, a darling of the right. The
Democrat, Alan Cranston, then beat Rafferty in the general election, even as
Richard Nixon carried California in the presidential election.

Fast-forward
to 1978 and the property tax revolt, which not only passed Proposition 13 but
also swept into Sacramento a cadre of "Prop 13 babies," whose anti-tax,
anti-government philosophy has dominated the Golden State’s GOP legislative
caucuses ever since.

The
imperative for right-wing purity in subsequent GOP primaries has literally
cleansed the state party of lawmakers who bear any resemblance to the
traditional Republicans who once played a leading role in California
government. Even relatively conservative Republican legislators now face
retribution from the tea party, the anti-tax crusaders and talk radio if they
even think about putting tax measures before the voters.

Today,
there is room in the California GOP only for the small cadre of die-hards who
manage to get elected in the shrinking number of Republican-dominated
districts. As a result, the GOP’s electoral hold on the one-third minority it
needs in each house of the Legislature to block tax increases has diminished.
Republican electoral prospects in the Golden State have never been bleaker.

Now,
the plight of Republican moderates has gone national. Last year, Sen. Bob
Bennett (R-Utah), a mainstream conservative, and moderate Rep. Mike Castle
(R-Del.) lost their party’s nomination to tea party favorites. Bennett’s Utah
colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a GOP stalwart, is facing a possible challenge
from the right next year. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) makes his predecessor, fellow
conservative Republican Jim Bunning, look like a flaming liberal. Sen. John
McCain (R-Ariz.) morphed from maverick to Rush Limbaugh impersonator to fight
off a challenge from the right in Arizona’s GOP Senate primary.

With
the right going after the likes of GOP Sens. Dick Lugar of Indiana and Olympia
Snowe of Maine, there is every indication that the purge will continue.

For
a while, it looked as if the Senate’s Gang of Six might begin to fill that
centrist void and help lead federal and state governments out of the fiscal
wilderness. But that effort has foundered – while there were new signs of life
Tuesday.

With
fiscal meltdowns looming at the federal and state levels, there remains a
critical need for "adult supervision" – rational Republican, and Democratic,
voices that used to make sensible compromise possible.

Too
many of today’s politicians speak loudly but carry a big chip on their
shoulder.
There are no Teddy Roosevelts. Until they appear, both in Washington and in our
nation’s statehouses, don’t expect things to change for the better.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior
fellow at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of
Southern California. Douglas Jeffe is a California public affairs consultant.

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