Every Tuesday evening I co-host an internet radio show, The Middle Ground, with filmmaker and Coffee Party USA co-founder Eric Byler. Eric lives left of center and, as you know, I live to the right. Our show emerges as an interesting olio, one that aims to find the place where civil conversation exists and commonalities can be found.
Eric’s habit is to start the show by throwing me a generally unplanned question about something going on in the news. He always asks these questions with curiosity rather than confrontation; he sincerely likes to hear the view from the right, and I enjoy coming up with responses I believe will interest a thoughtful audience. (I admit, though, that it occasionally feels a bit like I’m in a science experiment designed to uncover the behaviors of a heretofore unknown species: “Look! It’s a Moderate Republican! And in its native habitat, no less! Let’s see what it will do!”)
This past week I expected a question about Paul Ryan—the Wisconsin representative had just been selected as Mitt’s uber-Veep running mate. I was ready to offer an opinion, but I wasn’t quite ready for Eric’s actual question, which was this: ”Who would you have chosen?”
Caught off guard, I chuckled, pondered, grunted, sighed and laughed—anything to avoid dead air—all while scrambling for a decent answer. Either of the other two on Romney’s supposed short list (Portman or Pawlenty) would have been preferable to me, as would someone like Chris Christie of New Jersey. I thought of Olympia Snowe, but both her recent decision to resign from the Senate and the relatively low political return from choosing a Mainer quickly eliminated her. My own personal, totally off-the-reservation selection would have been Christie Todd Whitman, the former NJ governor and EPA head, but she, of course, has been off too many radar screens for too many years.
All of this whipped through my head with reasonable speed (which some may see as a sign of intelligence and others… not). And then the answer came to me.
“The first thing I would have done,” I said to Eric and our audience, “is pick a Republican.”
I hadn’t to that point articulated my beliefs so succinctly. I have argued (often vociferously), that the Tea Party consists not of Republicans but of something new and different (and frightening) that threatens daily to complete the hijacking of the GOP. Until recently, though, such individuals were wrapped up in the stereotypes provided by Michele Bachmann, Christine O’Donnell, Rick Perry, Sharron Angle and a host of other, less national names. These are people who suffer from their exposure much like an ant burning under a magnifying glass held by a five-year old boy. They rapidly desiccate into meaninglessness.
Ryan, comparatively, seems sane. I’ve even suggested to others that he possesses a certain bravery that’s rare in today’s political climate. You may love or loathe his approach to entitlement programs, but his willingness to touch the political third rail has started serious conversations about serious issues. He’s ideologically consistent, Tea Party-wise, and I doubt anyone wonders at what he’s about or what they’ll be getting if the R-and-R ticket wins in November.
But he’s not a Republican. He’s Tea Party. Republicans—true, historically accurate Republicans—are skilled at political compromise and forward movement, skills the Tea Party disdains.
It’s quite true that such movement is often slow and filled with questions about the effects of change on tradition and value (along with a sometimes mythological reverence for the past), but change—progress, in fact—has found embrace (though sometimes reluctantly) in Republican arms.
Lest you roll your eyes, let me point out that examples of Republican-led progress are all around you. Eisenhower changed (literally) the landscape of America, arguably making possible the emergence of suburbs and exurbs. Nixon forged a foreign policy that changed international relations forever, and Ford attempted a social experiment aimed at impacting a free market he felt had led to a frenzy of inflation.
These (and other) moderate conservative Republicans were interested in the future of America, not just the past, and were willing to reach across the aisle regularly in order to try and make things better, to change, to move (however slowly) forward. But not so with the Tea Party, which seems interested neither in the future nor in the compromise required to get there.
Writing in 2007, conservative author George W. Carey said that “The Republican Party…has changed its spots…. Moreover, along with the transformation of the Republican Party, we have witnessed a corresponding transformation of the popularly accepted understanding of conservatism.” Carey’s prescience is clear five years later. The GOP has not merely changed its spots, but has suffered a viral mutation from within its own core, and struggles now against something different, something frightening. This new core harbors no willingness to compromise and glances not at the future. It blindly embraces not progress, but regress, and it does so in absolutist terms. It is this emerging core—embodied so fully in Paul Ryan—that I find disturbing.
When members of a political party argue from an absolutist ideology, they fundamentally disrespect the maelstrom of thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs, and concerns of the American people. That hardline approach, that unwillingness to hear anything that doesn’t come from one’s own mind, is what should ultimately concern all of us. It’s not Ryan’s ideas: ideas are the realms from which conversations emerge. It is the inflexibility of those ideas, the absolutist—almost tyrannically slavish--notion that the ideas are more important than the people on whom they have an impact….
And that’s frightening.