The GOP Soul

Progressive Republicans seek to bring their party back to Main Street

12:01 AM CDT on Tuesday, August 31, 2004

WILLIAM McKENZIE / The Dallas Morning News

NEW YORK Rudy Giuliani. George Pataki. John McCain. Michael Bloomberg. They were all over the GOP convention yesterday. And then tonight, you'll see Arnold Schwarzenegger. One left-leaning Republican after another. You'd think Nelson Rockefeller had risen from the grave and progressive Republicans had retaken the GOP.

If it were only so. Progressive Republicans have much to offer their party. They know how to win races in places where you see more than Suburban-driving Republicans. They campaign in union halls, go into immigrant communities and listen to black voters.

In other words, progressive Republicans are the kind of people George W. Bush needs to secure a second term. No wonder he got them to kick off his convention. I would too in a tight race.

And there aren't just a few progressive Republicans, the kind who favor abortion rights but hate deficit spending. A bunch of them packed the top floor of the Met Life building Sunday afternoon for a Republican Main Street Partnership reception. And another Main Street meeting occurred yesterday with former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-Bush environmental adviser Christine Whitman holding forth on the importance of centrist Republicans.

Several GOP congressmen started the Main Street group in the 1990s to copy the success of the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC, you may recall, helped elect Bill Clinton president. It provided him a network and ideas.

Main Street certainly has a network. The group now has 12 chapters, much like the old Ripon Society used to have active chapters around the nation. And Main Street's political action committee helped a progressive Republican win a contested GOP primary this summer in Michigan. It also has helped progressive Republicans win office in New Hampshire and Florida.

The problem is ideas, or the lack thereof. The Giuliani wing of the GOP has not supplied enough ideas to shape the party's agenda.

I say this as one who spent 12 years laboring in this vineyard, working for a progressive Republican presidential candidate and then editing a political magazine of that stripe. GOP progressives have not come close to rivaling conservatives at the Heritage Foundation and other right-leaning idea factories. To their credit, conservatives raised the money for those places, found the scholars and fed their journals with cash and writers.

Sure, progressive Republicans have shepherded ideas through Congress. GOP Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware was a huge player in nudging the president's No Child Left Behind Act through the House. Now, over in the Senate, GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is doing a terrific job getting the chamber to address intelligence failures.

But shepherding ideas and brokering deals is not the same as driving the debate. Former New York GOP Rep. Rick Lazio admitted as much Sunday. "Thinking over the horizon is the challenge" for his fellow GOP progressives, he said in an interview.

They better get to work on it. As much as this convention is about George Bush's re-election, it also is the first move to determine what happens to the GOP after his presidency. This phenomenon happens at every convention when a party meets to re-nominate its president. It's natural that delegates think ahead.

New York Times columnist David Brooks already has put down one marker. A conservative himself, he argued in a Times Magazine piece Sunday that Republicans need a new progressive conservatism. He argues the party should advocate a "limited but energetic government in the name of social mobility and national union."

Progressive Republicans should be all over his admonition. It is classic Abraham Lincoln thinking. Theodore Roosevelt would have loved it. To some extent, so does George W. Bush. He's never crusaded against government.

Starting this week, though, the party's no longer all his. The GOP's soul is again up for grabs. Progressives, are you ready? If you aren't, then I wouldn't expect any starring roles at the next GOP convention.


William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is wmckenzie@dallasnews.