OPINION: I Was A Republican House Member For 17 Years — But The Party Has Left Me

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Recently, I have found myself having to explain to people I meet for the first time why I decided to pursue a public service career as a Republican. Often I anticipate their curiosity with a self-effacing introductory comment like “I’ve been out of Congress for 25 years, so you can’t blame me for what’s going on!” The questioning has reminded me how and why I made this major decision and how times and parties have changed.

It’s a truism recognized from generation to generation: young people are generally more idealistic than their elders who have lived long enough to experience cynicism. That was certainly true during my formative years. I saw public service as a higher calling. John F. Kennedy was a young charismatic president who attracted many young Americans to public service — and some of us even turned out to be Republicans!

During my years in graduate school at NYU and law school at Washington University in St. Louis, I kept close tabs on politics in my home state of Missouri. Always an avid newspaper reader, my hometown newspaper, the Kansas City Star covered political comings and goings in depth as did the two St. Louis dailies. From the Star pages I read lengthy features on Kansas City’s organized crime families, union corruption and their close association and political alliances with the state and local Democratic Party. I decided then that I would look to the only alternative available in which to pursue a political career, and that was with the GOP.

The Democratic coalition at that time was made up of white lower and middle class families (like mine), conservative small businessmen, farmers as well as many minority groups. It gave the party of FDR and local hero Harry Truman a secure lock on local and state politics. So, it was by default that the Missouri Republican Party became THE reform party in the state. With no successes state wide in 40 years, the party was an obvious choice for young people to join who didn’t want to play ball with the special interests or the vestiges of the Pendergast political machine.

Republican success came to Missouri in 1968 with John Danforth’s election as attorney general. Jack’s successful campaign marks the beginning of the modern Republican Party in Missouri.

Nationally, the party was being torn apart by the moderate-conservative split personified by Sen. Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for president and Nelson Rockefeller’s moderate to liberal governing philosophy as governor of New York. These differences were on the path to being settled with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and fully put to rest with the Reagan presidency. Most Republicans were mainstream conservatives or center-right moderates. 

During my 25-year political career, the national Republican Party advocated for a strong national defense against communism and its nation-state followers; it was pro-business, pro-trade, anti-protectionist.

Republicans were for limited government and maximum opportunities. Republicans were generally better educated. They believed in controlling government spending and supported balancing the federal budget. We believed Lincoln’s adage: “the government should do for the people, what the people cannot do for themselves.” Republicans appointed to be federal judges including those taking a seat on the Supreme Court were known as strict constructionists, interpreting the Constitution in a more restrictive fashion based upon the actual words contained in it. 

Today, the political party that still calls itself the Republican Party, through its actions and rhetoric, opposes every single one of these tenets. That has forced me to become a political independent.

The Democratic Party has also undergone a realignment of its views and followers.

In many ways the two parties have changed places in their philosophy and have, therefore, attracted a different type of membership. Democrats used to be seen as the party of lunch pail, union, working class families who got a factory job or performed manual labor immediately after leaving high school.

Exit polling results from the 2018 congressional election reflect a different make-up. Democrats today often have a higher education with a large majority of women identifying themselves as voting Democratic, while Republicans show a higher proportion of non-college men have moved to the GOP. In many states there is a split among urban Democrats and rural Republicans just as there is between the liberal East and West Coasts and the conservative Midwest and the South.

In the past, I considered it an unfair accusation that Republicans were considered the wealthy class and made up the majority of the “country club set.” Now the GOP has its share of low-income voters while many in the Democratic Party are among the more affluent. These are, of course, wide generalizations with many exceptions and caveats to them. 

As Gerald F. Seib recently noted, “The odd constituency out in the realigned world may be the business community, which now finds neither party particularly in sync with its free-market view of the world.” If he is correct, then business leaders must be prepared to look beyond their traditional corporate self-interests and begin to address the systemic problems facing our democracy. 

Tom Coleman represented Missouri as a Republican in the United States House from 1976-1993. He has taught as an adjunct professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and at American University in Washington, D.C.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.