Another Tuesday of Republican primary voting unfolds as Mitt Romney attempts to race further to the right to win Southern conservative votes away from candidates who (in any logical world) should have no chance of winning a presidential election.
Never in the history of America has one party produced in such short succession so many candidates ill-suited for the office they seek, either because they do not have the intellectual horsepower (Rick Perry, Sarah Palin), because they are ethically bankrupt (Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain) or because they are so reactionary they want to turn America into a land of magical religiosity by disclaiming global warming and denying evolution (Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum). And yet each one has been lethal in his own way to Mitt Romney.
Even Democrats can agree the Republican Party was not always like this. Republicans used to be a sensible lot. They touted values like entrepreneurship, freedom and individual responsibility. They stood for sensible fiscal spending, low taxes, limited government, and strong defense. They were smart.
But in recent years, the Republicans seem more and more, well, lost. They've run up huge debts under both Bushes' and Reagan presidencies (in real dollars, these presidencies account for 66.4% of the national debt on the books today). They've refused to end the expensive Bush tax cuts that have blown a hole in the budget. In the last two years, the Tea Partiers' unwillingness to compromise is the reason a real debt reduction package could not pass.
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The Republican Party used to be strong on national defense thanks to men like Gerald Ford, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. But that reputation was largely destroyed by George W. Bush's ruinous war in Iraq. Today, the sparse foreign policy credentials and anemic ideas of the Republican contenders (Mitt Romney, Rich Santorum and Newt Gingrich) leave even a Democrat wishing for the days of Richard Nixon.
However what is most troubling is the Republican social agenda, which has been hijacked by the social conservatives. In the name of religion, Republicans (who once believed in a limited government) have supported intrusion into every level of our lives whether it is limiting women's reproductive rights to legislating whom we can and cannot marry. They've denied real scientific truths (global warming) that threaten our very existence on the planet earth and made contraception a central issue of a presidential campaign like Victorian-era pedagogues.
Republicans have not always been an intolerant party. In fact, with the exception of George W. Bush, all modern Republican presidents had moderate religious views and drew clear distinctions between church and state:
-- George H.W. Bush, who never connected with the religious right (he adopted a pro-life stance only when he ran with Reagan in 1980), said, "I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. I don't believe a president should be advocating a particular denomination, or particular religion."
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-- Reagan expressed his "abiding faith in God" and a promise to use his bully pulpit "to the best of my ability to serve the Lord," however, in reality he focused almost entirely on his Cold War foreign policy and economic initiatives, rather than campaign promises to reinstitute school prayer or outlaw abortion.
-- Gerald Ford spoke little about religion, telling the press in 1974 when he assumed office that his faith "is a personal thing. It's not something one shouts from the housetops or wears on his sleeve."
-- Richard Nixon, a Quaker, had a practical view of religion saying that he no longer accepted as fact many of the miracles mentioned in the Bible, but expressed admiration for Jesus' message.
-- Even Dwight Eisenhower, who added "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, was not affiliated with any particular religion until after he took office and said that while he believed that "our government should be founded in a deeply felt religious belief" he didn't care what the belief was.
-- Herbert Hoover, a Quaker, believed in evolution and religious tolerance, declaring, "By blood and conviction I stand for religious tolerance both in act and in spirit."
One has to go all the way back to Warren Harding to find an evangelical president. Harding famously said that "the people of the United States... have gotten too far away from the Almighty God" and that "we need... more of the Christ spirit." Of course, no one enjoys a comparison to Harding, one of the least popular presidents of all time.
In 1908, Republican William Howard Taft declared that he did not "believe in the divinity of Christ." When accused of being an atheist during his presidential bid he responded: "If the American electorate is so narrow as not to elect a Unitarian, well and good. I can stand it." Can you imagine a Republican candidate today saying that he does not believe in the divinity of Christ? Can you imagine a Republican, as Herbert Hoover did, talking about evolution and the cosmos? Or Richard Nixon who faulted religion for the bloodiest of wars? Or Gerald Ford and George Bush, Sr. who both refused to discuss their religious beliefs, because of modesty and the separation of church and state?
Thanks to political operatives like Karl Rove and Lee Atwater, who used religion as a wedge issue to win votes in the 1980s and 1990s, the Republican Party is now hoist with its own petard. Mitt Romney, the only viable Republican presidential candidate, has had to shift so far right to appease social conservatives that he is likely to lose his general election bid.
America is better when it has two strong political parties that balance the extremes. But over the last generation, the Republican Party has indulged its extremes in an effort to secure votes and lost its bearings. All Americans -- not just Republicans -- are the lesser for it.