A few weeks ago, I was visiting my parents who live just outside of Mount Ida, a small rural town in western Arkansas that I sometimes use as a microcosm of Arkansas's rural conservatism.
I like to discuss politics with my parents. They are apolitical. I consider them a gauge for public opinion from time to time, and I was curious about their opinions on current happenings. During this particular conversation, my father and I agreed more than we disagreed; however, the disagreement highlights a significant battle currently occurring within the Republican Party.
My father was explaining to me how Washington's unchecked power was of concern to him and how he looked forward to voting against anyone, Democrat or Republican, who supports what he calls a “runaway” government. I agreed. He simply stated that he was looking for candidates, locally and nationally, to solve the number one problem facing average Arkansans everyday — the economy. I agreed.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter had just switched parties from Republican to Democratic. My father was disappointed that Specter had voted with Obama on a significant piece of legislation. He stated that any Republican in Congress who was not a “pure” Republican should be “voted out of the party.”
I listened to his opinion, and he patiently listened to mine. I tried to explain that any brand of conservatism is irrelevant if it is in the extreme minority and incapable of being a legitimate voice in governing. After all, you can be “pure,” but if you are not in elected position and involved in the governing process, little else matters. He disagreed.
Politics are cyclical. The Republican Party has experienced two very difficult election cycles nationally. History shows that the political climate could soon be more favorable. It is easy to forget that after the 2004 election, Republicans held control of the presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Republicans overreached. There are signs that Democrats are, too, beginning to overreach. Republicans must be ready to take advantage.
To take advantage of this opportunity, Republicans must develop a coalition of willing voters who have trust and confidence in the most important issue of the day — the economy.
In order to develop that coalition, Republicans might consider broadening the base of their party rather than purifying it. In case any Republican has forgotten, the ultimate goal is to win elections and govern conservatively. To win, we must add and multiply voters to our base rather than subtract and divide. Marginalizing our party by focusing on issues that are important to a single constituency within a broader coalition will not win elections.
To this end, the Republican Party needs elected officials like Arlen Specter who broaden our winning coalition. As Ronald Reagan quipped, “80 percent my friend is not 20 percent my enemy.” Reagan correctly realized that Republicans were never going to agree on every issue.
In the 2008 election cycle, Republicans saw significant erosion in support among independent voters, women, Hispanics and young voters. Looking forward, Republicans must have a message these groups can embrace as the political climate changes. While staking out conservative positions on gay marriage, abortion, and other social issues will be important to the base of the Republican Party, doing so while neglecting swing voters who want to hear about job creation and solutions to economic issues (and who might have differing positions on some of those social issues) will leave Republicans with a pure, irrelevant party.
Our party is mature enough to handle different constituencies and opinions. Republicans should embrace differences of opinions as they are part of reaching consensus and governing effectively.
Within the Republican Party there will not always be agreement. That is acceptable. Heck, as you can see, my father and I do not always agree on politics. We have not disowned each other yet. I'm sure the Republican Party can do the same.
Clint Reed, a former executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party, is a partner in Impact Management Group, a public affairs firm, and The Political Firm, a political consulting firm. He was named this week to Arkansas Business' list of “40 under 40,” an annual look at rising business and political leaders.