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Jack Kemp, Arlen Specter and the GOP

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George Curry
The recent death of Jack Kemp and Senator Arlene Specter’s switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party are reminders of just how far the GOP has swung to the right. And with GOP Chairman Michael Steele and titular Republican leader Rush Limbaugh applauding Specter’s switch, there are no signs that Republicans are ready to deal with the reality of their fading influence.

One person who understood the party needed to broaden its base was Jack Kemp, the former pro quarterback who tried to help Republicans score points with African-Americans. The former HUD secretary and vice presidential candidate always tried to build bridges, showing up at NAACP and National Urban League conventions and other events unpopular with party leaders.  “Among the many tragedies of the contemporary Republican party is that the partisans who will honor the memory of former Congressman, cabinet member and 1996 vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp have refused so consistently and belligerently to embrace the man’s wisest political insight,” John Nichols wrote in the Nation magazine. “’The only way to oppose a bad idea is to replace it with a good idea,’ said Kemp, who worked harder than anyone else to make the GOP a positive force rather than the ‘party of no.’ “Unfortunately, the ‘no’ camp prevailed and the Republican party that Kemp imagined as a modern tribune of humane and enlightened conservative ideals—the twenty-first-century version of the British Tory Party that evolved under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli—died well before the death on Saturday at age 73 of the most open and optimistic leader of the GOP in the 1980s and 1990s.” Steele, who relishes attacking President Barack Obama and shirks from standing toe-to-toe with talk show host Rush Limbaugh, said he was glad to see the Pennsylvania senator leave the GOP. He likened Specter to traitor Benedict Arnold in a party fundraising appeal and at another point claimed Specter had “flip (ped) the bird” to Republican colleagues.

On his radio program, Limbaugh said he hopes more moderate and liberal members of the GOP defect.

The problem is that in the senate, there are only two liberal Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins both of Maine.

Specter was the lone Republican moderate in the upper chamber and now he’s gone. Although his decision to become a Democrat was a calculated political move, he was correct in stating that the GOP is now captive of the far-right.

The best way to learn what is happening to the Republic Party is to ignore the predictable rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle. A poll of Republicans who switched parties in Pennsylvania by the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion is didactic.

“In recent years there has been a major shift in party registration among voters of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the poll found.

“In May of 2006, Democratic voters outnumbered their Republican counterparts by 550,000 registered voters statewide. Two and half years later the gap between Democrats and Republicans had more than doubled, with over 1,200,000 more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote in November of 2008.”

The public opinion survey found:

·        An overwhelming number of Pennsylvania Republicans who switched their voter registration status to Democrat had been in the Republican Party for 20 years or more;

·        Almost two out of three voters that have abandoned the GOP for the Democratic Party identified themselves as politically moderate or liberal;

·        The presidency of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq were identified as the largest contributing factors to the abandonment of the Republican party in Pennsylvania;

·        Pennsylvania voters leaving the GOP to become Democrats were more likely to claim that their decision was the result of changes in the party rather than changes in their personal beliefs and

·        A solid majority of individuals who have switched from Republican to Democrat indicated that they are not likely to change party registration again in the next five years.

Especially troubling for the GOP is the loss of voters who were an important part of their traditional base. Most of the defectors are fairly well-educated voters in the middle-to-upper-income categories. More than two-thirds of them – 68 percent cited dissatisfaction with George W. Bush’s performance in the White House as a very important reason for changing parties. In second-place, at 54 percent, was the Iraq War, followed by dissatisfaction with the GOP’s positions on foreign policy issues (49 percent), the GOP’s position on environmental affairs (45 percent) and Republican stances on taxes and spending (44 percent).  Had Republicans listened to Jack Kemp, it could have stemmed some of those losses to Democrats. But they didn’t. Today, they continue to listen to the advice of failed leaders, such as former vice president Dick Chaney.

Chaney said on Sunday that he favors the conservatism of Rush Limbaugh’s over the politics of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who crossed party lines last year to endorse Barack Obama.  “Well, if I had to choose in terms of being a Republican, I’d go with Rush Limbaugh, I think,” Cheney said in an interview on “Face the Nation. “I think my take on it was Colin had already left the party. I didn’t know he was still a Republican.” As the Louisville Courier-Journal observed in a recent editorial, “It isn’t clear why anyone would take seriously a drug-abusing radio blowhard or a former vice president who left office with an approval rating of 13 percent.”

George E. Curry, former editor-inchief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com

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