PRAGUE SPRING? Earlier today I took part in a media conference call with some of the founding members of Mainstream 2004, a group of self-described moderate Republicans who are seething over the right-wing extremism that has come to dominate their party. The organization debuted with a splash today, taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times.
"We're seeing a Republican Party that's being taken over by some pretty hardcore activists at the grassroots level who are often way out of the mainstream of the communities they are from," said former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods. He went on to call the right-wingers folks who "don't have anything better to do" than to engage in political activism, while the people who should be the heart and soul of the Republican Party are engaged in more-normal endeavors - like working.
Like the others who spoke, Woods was particularly exercised over the modern Republican Party's sorry record on the environment and on outreach to African-Americans and other minority communities.
The organization's agenda sounds like that espoused by most Democrats: environmental protection; fiscal responsibility; ending barriers to stem-cell research; appointing "mainstream federal judges"; enhancing domestic security at chemical and nuclear plants and in shipping; and rebuilding alliances to "restore America's standing in the world."
Yet these Republicans, at least as a group, will not go so far as to renounce George W. Bush's re-election campaign. Woods allowed only that he's backing a hoped-for presidential run by his home-state senator John McCain in 2008. Former Michigan governor William Milliken declined to say who he plans to vote for, saying he has "severe misgivings" about Bush but adding, "I don't see in John Kerry at this stage the answer to all the problems that confront us inside the country and internationally."
The exception was Rick Russman, a former member of the New Hampshire Senate, who said he's decided to support Kerry if only "because I think the party needs to lose a few elections" to find its bearings again.
In some ways, the group - rounded out by former New Mexico governor David Cargo - sounded like New England Republicans. For some years now, the region's moderate Republican senators have been a thorn in the side of the national Republican Party, standing for an old-fashioned mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. This movement is epitomized by Maine's two GOP senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as by Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. Vermont senator Jim Jeffords even went so far to change his affiliation from Republican to independent a few years ago to protest his party's march to the right.
Given that background, I asked Russman whether he thought the New England Republican Party had anything to teach the national party. "I'd like to see some of our leaders, like these senators from Maine and others, take the lead in that and try to take the party back to the mainstream," he responded. "There's got to be a critical mass that says the pendulum's gone too far. We're starting to lose a great number of people."
That's probably an exaggeration. But there's no question that the hard-right extremists are out-of-touch with mainstream, independent voters, and Karl Rove knows it. That's why this week's speakers are heavy on moderates such as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, former mayor Rudy Giuliani, and McCain. As Woods said, if party leaders wanted to show their true face, "they should have Tom DeLay deliver the principal speech."
Still, though the Mainstream 2004 folks may be in touch with the electorate-at-large, there's not much evidence that they're in touch with modern Republicanism. Everyone who spoke during the conference call today was a former officeholder. Cargo shone the best possible light on that, saying, "We can really tell it like it is." But their status only served to underscore the sense that there is no place for them in today's GOP.
Milliken praised this New York Times op-ed piece by former US senator Ed Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican, an African-American, and a liberal. Brooke warned that the 2004 convention may be shaping up, in its "extremism," like the one that nominated Barry Goldwater 40 years ago. Yet what neither Milliken nor Brooke want to admit is that today's GOP - which is far to the right of what Goldwater could even have imagined, or wanted - is thriving and winning elections.
I was unable to get an immediate reaction from the Republican National Committee; if I receive one, I'll post it. What I was hearing from the dissident moderates, though, sounded like the Republican version of 1968's Prague Spring. The difference is that the Rove gang won't have to roll in the tanks - certainly not this year, and maybe not ever. Woods himself said that the focus is on the long-term. Yet both major parties are becoming more ideological, not less. It's hard to see how Mainstream 2004 is going to change that.