Tom Ridge torpedoes tea party era at Log Cabin dinner

Posted by Justin Snow
October 24, 2013 10:08 AM |

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Tom Ridge lit into the modern-day Republican Party in a fiery speech Wednesday night that called for the GOP to embrace inclusion or face indefinite defeat.

Speaking to Log Cabin Republicans at the organization’s annual Spirit of Lincoln Dinner, the former Pennsylvania governor and first Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush said a "hard-core and shrinking base" of the Republican Party of today has alienated the voters necessary to win elections, and has pushed the party toward intolerance.

"For those who don’t toe a strict party line – or have an unbending ideological line – or who dare to work with Democrats to get anything done – they’re neither conservative enough, nor Republican enough for some within our midst," Ridge said. "For many observers, the GOP has become intolerant, judgmental and self-righteous – perhaps worthy of attitudes of the Pilgrims in 1620, but hardly attractive qualities for a political party nearly 400 years later."

While Ridge's speech touched on a number of topics, including Obamacare, abortion and some of the Republican Party’s most iconic leaders — including Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — the 15-minute speech was in many ways a rebuke of the Republican Party of the tea party era.

Ridge, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1983, said that a clutch of the GOP has come to believe unity must require unanimity on every issue, and that such a mentality has pushed away potential voters and Republican leaders, diminishing the party's chances of governance. 

"In order to govern, we must win national elections. To do so the narcissists and ideologues within our party need to understand that Americans are, more conservative than liberal, but are more practical than ideological and more tolerant and open-minded than judgmental. They are also looking for real not rhetorical solutions," Ridge said. "They are not attracted to a party that imposes an even more severe litmus test on its own members, projects an unacceptable rigidity and self-righteousness on social issues, and spends more time and energy objecting to bad law rather than proposing alternatives." 

Ridge spoke to his evolution on marriage equality, noting that it did not happen overnight but came through the "seasoning of time and experience." Indeed, as governor of Pennsylvania, Ridge signed a state version of the Defense of Marriage Act, only for this past summer to sign on to an amicus brief filed in the Proposition 8 case before the Supreme Court calling for marriage equality nationwide. 

He also lamented the way many in the Republican Party have exiled or excluded those who differ with the party on social issues. While insisting the Republican Party will always be the party opposed to abortion, Ridge added that the GOP's "narrow thinking on social issues" is one of the key reasons Democrats have won the past two national elections.

"Many Americans are outraged by the moralistic attacks on the gay and lesbian community from some within our party. Perhaps they should be more concerned about their own relationship with God," Ridge said. "As both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke taught us, 'Judge not, lest ye be judged.' It is an important enough lesson to be mentioned multiple times."

"Let's face it, who's left to offend? Perhaps just white males like me, and you know I'm not real happy now," Ridge continued.

The annual dinner marked the first since last year's general election, which saw a series of defeats for Republicans after President Barack Obama won re-election by a large margin over Mitt Romney, who was endorsed by Log Cabin Republicans. But it was the events that have transpired since then, including landmark Supreme Court rulings, a growing majority of Americans who support marriage equality, Senate movement on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a Republican Party in the midst of soul searching that gave hope to many of last night's attendees.

"If we want to win, then we need a bigger tent. And we need to fill it," Ridge said. "If we want to win, we need to be a party worthy of the 21st century. A nonjudgmental party where all who support us are welcome. A party where diversity of view, race, ethnicity, gender and religion are relished and promoted and nourished."

"The times are a-changin'," said Ridge. "It's about time the Republican Party caught up." 

Among the other attendees at last night’s event was Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and it was hard to miss the significance of his attendance. Issa is the House of Representative's chief watchdog, chairing the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and one of the most high-profile members of Congress. He also has a voting record that is far from gay-friendly, having voted for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and against LGBT workplace protections.

Speaking to Metro Weekly, Issa largely shied from discussing his own views on particular LGBT issues, which have never been the main focus of his political career, but he, too, offered a vision of inclusion that unites rather than divides the Republican Party.

"The Republican Party has a challenge and it is the gay community is disproportionately registered Democrat and so we have to be appropriately welcoming to people who support Republican values who happen to be gay," Issa said.

Although Log Cabin Republicans have been lobbying Issa on ENDA, he said he has not yet taken a position, nor has he seen the bill. Issa added that a House version of the legislation would likely differ from a Senate version and that any law concerning workplace discrimination must not enable trial lawyers. 

Asked if his views on marriage have changed since the U.S. Supreme Court returned marriage equality to California in June, Issa said no, but added that the country is witnessing a "march of time." 

"I think we're watching a shift. That shift is not as far as the left would take it, but in fact it's very much like many other levels of acceptance where the laws over time follow," Issa said. "When I was a young man only some states allowed interracial marriage. People don't think about that in my lifetime those are the kind of laws that have gone away. So when you look at gay acceptance and gay marriage I think you're looking at something very similar in many ways. Slavery ended 100 years before 1965, but in 1965 not every state would openly do interracial marriages. I think we're moving a lot faster."

Added Issa, "I've never been one for special rights, but I've always been for equal rights."

Ridge's full remarks as provided by Log Cabin Republicans:

Thank you, Gregory

Other acknowledgments:

The Log Cabin Republicans

The Liberty Education Forum Board of Directors

The many elected officials and GOP dignitaries here tonight who joined me in co-signing the amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8.

(Recognize Ken Mehlman although he will not be in attendance.)

I’m pleased to join you today and to be among those who supported the Amicus brief in the case of Perry v. Brown (Hollingsworth).

You should know that some eighteen years ago marriage equality was not a concept I supported when I became governor.

But over the years, I became better informed, more aware, and more understanding.

Not everyone I called a friend was straight, but it made no difference. They were my friends nonetheless. Friends without the same rights to marry as I had.

My support of marriage equality wasn’t a decision made at one point in time. There was no epiphany; it evolved.

It simply came to make sense – that all of us are equal in the eyes of the God we worship and the same should be true of the government to which we “render unto Caesar.”

The same is true for my various positions on any number of issues – abortion, immigration, school choice, fiscal policy, foreign policy.

The seasoning of time and experience either have changed those views or made them more firmly entrenched.

I’ve run for elected office eight times, so I’m accustomed to having my views challenged – occasionally by my own party and more often by the Democratic Party. For me, the discussion of issues started at the kitchen table.

You see, my mom was a Republican. Dad was a Democrat.

My dad was so much a Democrat that he once changed his party registration so he could vote for his son in the GOP primary – and then at the first opportunity, he changed it right back. I said, “Dad, stay awhile!”

You can imagine our dinner conversations. But we were always respectful of each other’s beliefs. One of the valuable lessons was that neither party enjoyed the wisdom of Solomon nor had all the answers of an oracle.

The Republican Party is another family to me – one in which some of my views differ with certain groups within our party.

Unfortunately, the tone and tenor toward me and others with my same point of view isn’t always so respectful. And that troubles me, particularly because I never required 100% congruency with my views as a condition of support for Republican colleagues.

So I thought I’d talk to you today about my thoughts on that – about my perspectives of the Republican Party of the 21st Century – a nonjudgmental conservative party, a winning party – and what that means.

I predict that some of my observations about a victorious nonjudgmental party will be provocative, perhaps controversial. Frankly, that is why I am grateful you have provided me this opportunity to make them. They really ought not to be controversial at all. Sadly, that’s how far it seems the party has strayed.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure if I have any – but since when has that stopped anyone in Washington from making a speech!

I’ll start here…

Two Republican presidents changed my life in a very personal and meaningful way. One called on me to serve my country in Vietnam. The other asked me to serve my country after the attacks of 9/11.

Neither president asked me my position on social issues.

In both instances, the message was simply: “Your country needs you – please serve.” I was privileged to serve in Congress under yet another Republican President, Ronald Reagan. He once observed:

“The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

See, he was respectful. He was civil. He was positive. He challenged, he didn’t condemn.

He knew he needed a few of his “liberal friends” to win elections. Frankly, I think we have some within the party that prefer to wage battles, but not win wars.

He not only rallied conservatives in the GOP – he made appeals to the center, conservative Democrats and independents.

It was the strategy and vision of the “big tent.” He was inclusive, nonjudgmental, practical and conservative!

Today, that “big tent” is morphing into a “lean-to.”

Instead of working to attract independents and working-class Democrats, a hard-core and shrinking base often alienates the very voters it needs to win elections.

In recent years Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Lamar Alexander, Orin Hatch, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham – among others – were castigated by devout hardliners for not being conservative enough. Not conservative enough?

Reagan would, I dare say, be considered too moderate for our party today. He wasn’t an in your face ideologue. He was practical, nonjudgmental and conservative. Reagan had been a Democrat, had been divorced, had been an actor, and had run one of the most liberal unions in the country – the Screen Actors’ Guild. I don’t think he could have been our nominee in 2012.

And don’t even get me started about Abraham Lincoln’s chances.

Last year, then Senator Olympia Snowe resigned with a letter lamenting – quote – “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies in campaigns and governing institutions.”

She’s right – about the U.S. Senate – and about the GOP.

For those who don’t toe a strict party line – or have an unbending ideological line – or who dare to work with Democrats to get anything done – they’re neither conservative enough, nor Republican enough for some within our midst.

For many observers, the GOP has become intolerant, judgmental and self-righteous – perhaps worthy of attitudes of the Pilgrims in 1620, but hardly attractive qualities for a political party nearly 400 years later. 

Sadly, there is very little room or respect for differences of opinion on social issues.

Remember when the Democratic Party wanted to deny my predecessor, Governor Bob Casey a chance to speak at the 1992 convention, because he was pro-life?

Some within the Democratic Party were seeking to widen its base – demonstrate a willingness to accept and respect a different opinion.

Republicans immediately condemned his exclusion. But haven’t we done the same thing within our own party?

Our own narrow thinking on social issues is one of the principal reasons we have lost the last two national elections. 

We will always be the prolife party! Yet as some of my prolife women friends have observed, that’s their choice.

You know, the President, in the implementation of ObamaCare, (and I agree with the majority of Americans. It is a flawed law worthy of repeal) is blatantly infringing on the religious liberties of Catholic and other religious health care facilities. You know I am pro-choice, but in mandating that these institutions perform abortions or provide other services contrary to its values, the government is forcing its views on the practices of these religious institutions. It is a scary, slippery slope.

But I say, if we are to combat this real attack on American liberties, we cannot be the party that simply seeks to replace Democrat tyranny to impose forms of it to our liking.

If our expectation is the respect of our individual rights, we must respect the rights of others to live and let live.

If we want a government that acknowledges our God-given right to freely choose how we live — in regard to marriage and others issues – we must demand a government that respects the rights of others to choose and follow their conscience just the same. 

And if the Republican Party does not champion free will and free thoughts as a component of freedom writ large, we will not only find the Republican Party permanently divided, but the country itself.

Many Americans are outraged by the moralistic attacks on the gay and lesbian community from some within our party. Perhaps they should be more concerned about their own relationship with God. As both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke taught us, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It is an important enough lesson to be mentioned multiple times.

The blanket condemnation of illegal immigrants and the failure to find a way to at least legitimize their status (not citizenship) of those who have been law abiding since their arrival is wrong and a grave political mistake.

And yes, there is another group of Americans to whom the GOP appears insensitive and uncaring. Last fall thirty-plus Republican senators walked by one of our great contemporary political leaders, Bob Dole, to vote against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It would have no effect on U.S. Law. But instead, those Senators – wanting to look big in front of the hardcore “don’t like the UN crowd” – made their country look small – themselves look small minded – and once again, made their party look exclusionary.

Let’s face it, who’s left to offend – perhaps just white males – and we are beginning to lose support with that group as well. 

This lack of civility and statesmanship has consequences that extend beyond lost elections. We risk losing a generation of public servants. Allegheny College, one of the nation’s great liberal arts schools, has done extensive polling on the subject. They found that young Americans are turning away from careers in elected office. That troubles me greatly. It should trouble all of us. 

And if you supplement our offensive and exclusionary view on social issues with the debacle of the past few weeks, we should be concerned about our brand, our message and our future. The majority of Americans don’t like Obama Care, but they like the flawed and failed tactics to default even less. 

In order to govern, we must win national elections. To do so the narcissists and ideologues within our party need to understand that Americans are, more conservative than liberal, but are more practical than ideological and more tolerant and open minded than judgmental. They are also looking for real not rhetorical solutions.

They are not attracted to a party that imposes an even more severe litmus tests on its own members, projects an unacceptable rigidity and self-righteousness on social issues, and spends more time and energy objecting to bad law rather than proposing alternatives.

So before we worry about 2016 and potential messengers, shouldn’t we be focused on our message. First, wouldn’t it be better for us if we realized that notwithstanding differences on social issues, we are on the same side, that there is far, far more that unites than divides.

Wouldn’t it be better if we understood that unity doesn’t mean or require UNANIMITY? That disagreement does not mean disloyalty. And compromise doesn’t mean capitulation.

We do not have to agree on every agenda item, every policy or every talking point to be a good Republican.

We do not have to agree on all things to uphold and promote the important things. The kind of things with which we do agree, such as:

A Republican party joined in the cause of a strong defense to sustain our belief that the U.S. is the best suited of all countries to provide global leadership in the 21st century.

Such as individualized empowerment and accountability.

Such as an economy driven by innovation and entrepreneurship and less encumbered with non- productive taxes and regulations.

Such as common ground and compromise are as critical today in advancing our national interest as it was when our founders drafted the most significant political compromises of self-government known to mankind – the Constitution of the United States.

Let me be clear: I don’t think the Republican Party is going by the wayside.

Oh, how some in the media and our Democratic friends would like that.

Daily it seems, they rub their hands with delight at that prospect and cheerfully fan the flames of dissent.

So if we’re looking for a group to offend – let it be the DNC and their friends in the media. 

Let it be the people who want us to continue to lose elections.

I am an optimist by nature and so I have every confidence that we will succeed as a party. For we know that good politics – a civil, respectful dissent and a constructive debate of ideas – can advance our party, not diminish it. It always has. 

Abraham Lincoln once said – “Revolutions do not go backwards.” 

As for the revolution that has long been the Republican Party, it has always moved forward – and I believe it will gain strength and succeed – as long as the next generation of leaders accepts the responsibility to promote an constructive, conservative, nonjudgmental agenda.

Just as we stared with a puzzled look at our parents or grandparents, who seemed stuck in neutral – when it came to civil rights in the 1960s – the younger generations are looking at us with the same quizzical expressions.

• 63% of millennials hope to achieve full marriage equality. The times they are changing.

They’ve grown up with friends who are gay or lesbian; they’ve seen America go through two wars and they’ve watched the country’s economy plunge. They are impatient to say “move over and let us show you how it’s done.”

That is often the way of change.

As a young politician, Teddy Roosevelt saw a weariness with voters at the turn of the 19th century – they were tired of politics of the extreme. 

So he crafted himself as a bipartisan candidate – willing to get things done. That infuriated Democrats and establishment Republicans.

Leave it to a guy with the initials “TR” to get people’s feathers ruffled!

But he won. And it led to a Progressive Bipartisan era. 

The country swung back eventually – political swings of polarization versus conciliation are constant.

But I’d like to see our years of polarization end.

The work of our party is the work of all members of the GOP. 

If we are to win, we will win because we worked together – and won together – and will lead together. 

Right now, we seem more focused on the messenger – rather than the message. But if we look back at the icons of the Republican Party, each one had a vision. 

Lincoln – emancipation.

Teddy Roosevelt – an environment and economy preserved for future generations.

Reagan – cut taxes, tear down that wall.

What will be our message of the 2016 election? 

Will we have a positive message next year for the midterms? 

And will that message appeal to a broad array of voters? Or will it be a message that seeks to prey on our differences and fears, rather than our shared goals? 

Those are the questions that require our full attention. 

Social issues are important. But frankly, whether we consider someone Republican enough or conservative enough on social issues – whether your hat is red, purple or blue – is not a message to bring to the electorate. 

The voter appeal of Reagan’s big tent was that, maybe just maybe, inside that tent politics might not take precedence over the business of governing. Of getting things done. 

That appeal swept him into office – and kept him there – because he had a vision – and while he was as deft a politician as we’ve ever had – he was a leader first, a likable man second, a politician third, and a polarizing figure last. 

He was the pro-life president who didn’t run on the issue.

He had a mid-Westerner’s understanding of the American, and didn’t run against those seeking a better life in this blessed land. 

He ran on the vision of a shining city on a hill. 

He tapped into the country’s hunger for better days – and for most people – that was a strong economy and a secure country.

It was quite simple, really.

Reagan knew, as Teddy Roosevelt knew, as Lincoln knew – that beyond politics, a party must be about purpose. 

What is our purpose, the Republican Party of today? 

Are we a fractured party of purists and ideologues – or are we going to become a united party of ideas?

Do we want to lose on divisiveness or win on good leadership?

If we want to win, then we need a bigger tent. And we need to fill it. We need to fill it, just as we have filled this room. With people of good will, of understanding, and of a desire to see each other succeed, not see how many we can help fail. 

If we want to win, we need to be a party worthy of the 21st century. A nonjudgmental party where all who support us are welcome. A party where diversity of view, race, ethnicity, gender and religion are relished and promoted and nourished.

If we want to win, we need to remember that we are the Party of Lincoln – Lincoln, who believed in the principle of thoughtful, respectful debate, but also believe in the dignity and hopes of every person.

I don’t know about you – but I want to win.

I want my party to have the best chance of success every time a voter walks into a voting booth.

I want my country to have the best chance of success – always but most especially when a Republican is in the White House.

I don’t want to cede power to another party – or for that matter, to another part of the world.

None of us do. So we have our work cut out for us.

So to all the members of my party I say - let us work together in a civil and respectful way, with passion and conviction. 

Let’s go forward with a mission and message for the next election. 

And let’s find our way back as a party of ideas – a party of inclusion.

There’s room enough for everyone.

Thank you.

[Photo: Tom Ridge. Credit: Official Portrait.] 


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