Thursday, September 16, 2010

In Praise of Moderate Republicans ... Really

This is going to sound like the grumpy lament of a middle-aged man, or, perhaps like a wagon train tale. But I can remember the election, in my home state of Tennessee, of moderate Republican lawmakers and executives. I doubt that my children will have such memories for the moderate Republican is a dying breed.
Why should a life-long liberal lament this fact of contemporary American political life? For one thing, I have always been more of a small "d" democrat than a capital "D" Democrat. While I am an unapologetic liberal, I also know that every perspective is sharpened by the contest of ideas, and I don't believe any person, party or point of view owns a monopoly on ideas for the common good.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the Republican candidates for whom I have voted over the years, but I am always suspicious of concentrated power and that includes power concentrated in the hands of a political party with whom I more often than not agree. Lord Acton was right: power corrupts, as the long list of disgraced public figures from both parties attests.
The best balance to the corrupting influence of power is the force of other power, but when that power arrives as the bow shot of extremists it may seem to balance power but it undermines stability in the system as a whole. An unbalanced system is chaos.
The creation story in Genesis tells us that God brought forth the world from out of chaos, and thus chaos might be seen as the fertile ground for creative growth. The problem arises when the agents of chaos mistake themselves for God, or, at least, as God's messengers.
It is no accident that the most divisive aspects of our politics right now revolve around issues such as the Muslim community center in New York or the threatened Qu'ran burning in Florida or the mosque arson in Tennessee. God is the real Ground Zero of our politics right now.
Unfortunately, our politics has been so thoroughly debased that it is not nearly large enough to cover that ground. Which brings me back 'round to this week's primary results, and, in particular, to the sorry state of the Republican Party in Delaware.
I have no personal stake in that contest. I have never met Mike Castle, but I have long been aware of him. He has always struck me as being like one of those Republicans whose election I can recall from a generation ago in Tennessee -- Howard Baker, Lamar Alexander or Gene Roberts.
Baker and Alexander became nationally known figures. I mostly disagreed with them on the issues, and increasingly so over the years as they drifted with the rest of their party further and further to the right. Nevertheless, when I was coming of age during Watergate I was proud that a Tennessean played a key role in holding President Nixon accountable, and, though I voted for the other guy (Jake Butcher) for governor in my first election (1978) it is clear that Sen. Alexander has done considerably more good for the state than Mr. Butcher, who wound up in prison for massive bank fraud.
Gene Roberts, who was never as well known as Baker or Alexander, became mayor of my home town of Chattanooga in 1982, and served for 15 years. When I was growing up he was our next-door neighbor, though his family had moved to a considerably more upscale neighborhood by the time he was elected mayor. I babysat for his kids, and one of his sons was my baby brother's best friend.
In 1982, Chattanooga was a dying steel town in the throws of the Reagan recession. These days Chattanooga is known as a beautiful, thriving city. When I tell folks that I grew up there, they often remark on what a nice place it is to visit. I inevitably say, "yeah, it's so much nicer since I left!"
That is true by virtually any measure, but it probably doesn't have much to do with my leaving. It does, however, have a great deal to do with Mayor Roberts' leadership.
Why does he come to mind this week? Because I seriously doubt that he could be elected today. He was genuinely moderate, and actively sought to work with folks from across the political and economic spectrum of the city. That willingness to include the people -- the demos -- in decisions is precisely what enabled Chattanooga to move from a city of shuttered steel mills in the 1970s to the thriving and livable city it has become.
The country as a whole seems so much like my hometown was 40 years ago, and we need practical leaders from a lot of perspectives. When one party takes itself off the deep end and purges its ranks of all but one, extreme ideological position, the entire body politic suffers.

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