Finding Our Inner Republican

We worry here at the Prospect about whether we give the Republican Party a fair shake. OK, we don't worry about it a lot. But when our attention was called to the "Accomplishments" section of the official Republican National Committee's website, we decided to check it out. And we immediately started wondering if the bragging list had been crafted specifically to make us liberals rethink our Republican antipathies, and to drive all conservatives from GOP ranks.

The list begins with the establishment of the transcontinental railroad, accompanied by the inevitable photo of the two locomotives and their crews meeting as the Golden Spike is pounded into the ground. A moment of nation building genuinely worth celebrating -- almost enough to make us forget the Republican opposition to such modern-day equivalents as the high-speed rail funded in President Barack Obama's stimulus package, on which every Republican House member voted no.

The list then turns to the civil-rights accomplishments of the GOP during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Here's the Emancipation Proclamation. Here's the establishment of Howard University. Here's the passage of the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the vote to African Americans. Here, God save us, is the passage of the 14th Amendment, whose citizenship clause today's Republicans clamor to repeal. Not so in 1868, we learn from the GOP website. When Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature voted that year to rescind the state's ratification of the amendment, Jersey's Republican governor stood up for civil rights and vetoed their measure.

At this point, we confess to being swept by a powerful wave of nostalgia. Where are the Republicans of yesteryear? On the list of 36 accomplishments, the first 29 all come from the era when the Republicans were rooted in the North and West and had a strong progressive element. Only the final seven date from the era of modern Republicanism -- beginning with Richard Nixon -- based in the South and zealously opposed to the racial liberalism and public-investment policies that once characterized the Grand Old Party.

Indeed, many of the pre-Ronald Reagan accomplishments look to have been put on the list to meet some hitherto undetected Republican racial quota system. We learn -- each is cited as a separate accomplishment -- that the first Hispanic governor, the first African American senator (Reconstruction Era, of course), the first female mayor, the first Jewish Cabinet member, the first Hispanic senator, and the first Asian American senator were all Republicans. (That's about as many people of color as were delegates to the 2008 Republican Convention.) We learn that a Republican senator authored the 19th Amendment, granting women their hard-won right to vote. We learn that Republican Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan registered a dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and Republican Chief Justice Earl Warren authored the majority decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

What we don't learn is that Republicans around the nation were posting billboards by the early 1960s reading "Impeach Earl Warren." We don't learn that, the 19th Amendment notwithstanding, Republicans led the late-20th-century opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Indeed, the most striking thing about the pre-Reagan list of GOP accomplishments is that it totally omits any mention of the party's conservative mainstream. Sen. Robert Taft's opposition to the New Deal and all its works is nowhere to be found. Neither is Alf Landon's 1936 campaign against Social Security. Of Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- the year the GOP made him their presidential standard-bearer -- we hear nothing.

This is a Republican history bewilderingly crafted not only to highlight every pre-Reagan progressive achievement but to omit every bit of pre-Reagan conservatism. We understand the omissions of Herbert Hoover and Joseph McCarthy -- bringing such figures back from history's hell is a heavy lift -- but there's nothing here on such orthodox conservative stalwarts as Presidents William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge. Of course, as orthodox conservative stalwarts, Taft and Coolidge didn't do very much, but in the mental universe of today's Republicans, that counts as an accomplishment, while presidential activism (domestically, at least) ranks somewhere between heresy and treason.

The RNC website reflects nothing of current GOP thinking until it hits 1980. Abruptly, the list changes. Suddenly, the achievements to be celebrated are not Abe's and Ike's public investments but the Reagan and Bush tax cuts. The penultimate achievement on the list is Bush's Operation Iraqi Freedom. It's Esquire's Dubious Achievements, only you're not supposed to laugh.

In a way, the list rather neatly encapsulates how the Republican Party has done an all-American 180 -- shifting from a Hamiltonian party promoting pro-business public works and committed to racial liberalism, to a Jeffersonian party, dead set against public investment and rooted in the white South with all its attendant bigotries (and minus much of Jefferson's concern for the Bill of Rights). Actually, by omitting all references to the party's pre-Reagan conservatism, the list greatly overstates the party's reversal. While Republicans hailed Lincoln's and Eisenhower's public works, they also lambasted Franklin Roosevelt's as socialism. A century of labeling Democrats as socialists, however, is not an achievement that makes this list, even though it is the ultimate Republican evergreen.

To the contrary, by highlighting the works of Abe and Ike, the GOP's accomplishment list, pondered sufficiently, could lead you to think that Lyndon Johnson's successful push for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Roosevelt's infrastructure construction and rural electrification programs were pretty fair accomplishments, too. Which is why we conclude that the list, up until Reagan, was put together solely to woo liberals like us.

And not without effect. We've thought it over here at the Prospect and concluded that back in the day, we'd have marched in the Lincoln torchlight parades. A decade later, we'd have championed Reconstruction and worked to keep the troops down South to defend African American rights. We can't imagine staying in the party much past the Civil War, because it quickly became the political vehicle for big business as it violently suppressed labor. But we could still have found occasional things to like. If it were 1896, we'd join Harlan in his Plessy dissent. If it were 1954, we'd celebrate Warren's decision in Brown.

After that, admittedly, the pickings get mighty slim. But, Michael Steele, take heart: We're for Free Soil and Free Men here at the Prospect and would join your party, were it 1860, in a flash.

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