The Other Grand Old Party

This morning former Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger posted the following on the social media site formerly know as Twitter.

As a proud conservative, I’ve always put  America’s Democracy and our Constitution above all else.  And today, as a proud conservative, I am endorsing Joe Biden for reelection!

While I certainly don’t agree with President Biden on everything, and I never thought I’d be endorsing a Democrat for president, I know that he will always protect the very thing that makes America the best country in the world: our democracy.

The Huffington Post suggested the timing was no accident.  “Kinzinger’s announcement comes on the eve of the opening presidential debate and gives Biden an example he can raise Thursday night of a well-known Republican supporting him over Trump. ”  Kinzinger joins a growing list of former Republican leaders, including  representatives Susan Molinari (NY), David Jolly (FL) and Charles Dent (PA), governors John Kasich (OH) and Christine Todd Whitman (NJ) and former RNC chairman Michael Steele, who have endorsed the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Questions about the reason for their conversion are usually followed by inquiries related to the future of the Republican party.  Premiere among them is, “Do you still have hope that the GOP can ever shed the influence of Donald Trump and the extreme MAGA wing of the party?”  Oh, for the good old days of Lincoln, bipartisan camaraderie (Reagan and Tip O’Neill) and presidential nominees slightly to the right of center.

As an over-educated political scientist and practitioner of party politics for most of my life, I find it strange Democrats do not share the same longing for their “good old days.”  With the exception of the 80th and 83rd Congress (1947-49 and 1953-55), Democrats controlled both houses of Congress for 50 years (1931-1981).  And not by small margins.  I hesitate to call these “the good old days.”  It was the “best of times” from a macro national perspective.  Americans survived the Great Depression, defeated fascism in Europe and the Pacific, expanded higher education and housing opportunities through the GI bill, rocketed to the moon and passed landmark legislation like the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Social Security and Medicare.  This progressive agenda continued even when Republicans occupied the Oval Office as evidenced by the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Nixon administration.

However, we must not forget that for some Americans, particularly minorities and women, much of this era was “the worst of times.”  Segregation and the glass ceiling presented seemingly impenetrable barriers for these folks to reach their full potential.  Even de jure responses such as civil rights legislation, the Fair Housing Act and Title IX did not immediately resolve the de facto inequities.

In his book Jumpstart Your Brain, Doug Hall explains how stimulus/response is the key to creative solutions. Observations and experiences are triggers which open new avenues of exploration.  This morning, Adam Kinzinger was the trigger that opened my eyes to why our country is so divided and why partisanship is a barrier to reasonable political leadership and civil discourse.  More importantly, now may be the most opportune time to take a leap of faith to reverse this corrosive segmentation of American society.

I suggest it is time for the Democratic Party to remember why it it was so successful during that 50-year run.  It was the party of economic opportunity during the depression.  It was the party of global democracy in World War II.  It was the party of the middle class in the post-war era.  And it was the party of individual rights in the 1960s.  And it never faltered from its support for the Constitution and the rule of law.   The best example may be Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 attempt to add seats to the Supreme Court to counteract the justices who questioned the constitutionality of some New Deal programs.  Although Democrats controlled the Senate 74-22, Roosevelt’s plan died in the Democratic dominated Judiciary Committee which saw the scheme as nothing more than a power grab.

You know what it did NOT have?  Ideological purity. Democratic Senators in the 73rd Congress (1933-35) ranged from liberal Robert Wagner (NY) to conservative Richard Russell (GA).  The ideological spread was no different in the 96th Congress (1979-1981) with the likes of Ted Kennedy (MA) and Russell Long (LA).  Legislating within the Democratic conference was certainly messy, but compromise was the order of the day and passage was usually ensured.

So let’s stop worrying about whether moderate Republicans can ever retake control of the GOP.  It is now the MAGA party, and if Democrats focus on a pro-democracy, pro-Constitution strategy, could be doomed to minority status for decades to come.  If, and only if, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries reach out to disaffected Republicans the likes of Adam Kinzinger, Liz Cheney and Mitch Romney.  And invite them to run as conservative Democrats with the full backing of the Democratic National Committee. 

Why would either side do it? Imagine the following conversation between the Democratic leadership and potential GOP recruits.

Nobody thought we could ever pass the Affordable Care Act.  But we had 60 Democratic senators.  And we had hoped some of  you would join us.  So we dropped single payer and other provisions that even some of our own members objected to.  And we got the 60 votes and, [Biden jumps in] you must admit, I was right.  It was a big f***ing deal. 

We both know immigration reform is long overdue.  If we had 60 members today, the compromise we agreed to with Jim Lankford would be the law of the land.  The same is true for sensible gun safety legislation.  The environment. Saving Social Security.  Reproductive choice.  You’ve seen the polls.  These are 70/30 or 80/20 issues.  Voters want us to do something.  Conservatives and liberals can disagree on approaches and some of the details, but we can work that out.  What we cannot abide is having extremists blocking any chance of passage, promising to primary anyone who is willing to compromise.

The only thing that is not negotiable is loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law.  But we never believed that was an issue for you.  We think you’ll find a home in the New Democratic Party where your loyalty will be to your constituents, not a cult leader, and you can speak your mind without fear of retribution.

I know many of you think this is a pipedream.  And it may be.  But it has a better chance of succeeding than MAGA world reverting to the party of Lincoln.

For what it’s worth.