The Republican Party as a Big Tent

March 12, 1995

Republicans of all stripes -- mainstream conservatives and even those of more rigid and extreme views to their right -- should welcome Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, who has switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

Senator Campbell has a moderate voting record, and is pro-choice. But conservatives upset by that have to remember that in majoritarian America, a political party exists to achieve and exercise power. It is difficult, in fact impossible, to do that for any length of time if a party insists on a litmus test on issues and philosophies. Parties endure and prevail when they adopt the "big tent" approach -- room for three rings, right, center and left.

Some zealots today in both parties don't realize that. Senator Campbell gave as one reason for his switch his discomfort caused by his "just not living up to the expectations of the left wing of the Democratic Party." He is certainly not going to live up to the expectations of the right wing of the Republican Party. The test for it will be if it accepts him, anyway. The signs are mixed so far.

Some very conservative Republicans wanted to strip Sen. Mark Hatfield of his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, because he was the only Republican senator to vote against the Balanced Budget Amendment. They forced a meeting on the issue of all Republican senators last Wednesday -- where cooler, wiser heads prevailed. Senator Hatfield keeps his chairmanship. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. Connie Mack of Florida were the leaders of the anti-Hatfield effort. Interestingly and perhaps significantly, Senator Mack was a member of Newt Gingrich's Conservative Opportunity Society while in the House, and Senator Santorum, also a former House member, was tutored by tapes prepared by Mr. Gingrich's political action committee (GOPAC).

Those Republicans and some others recently promoted to the Senate or to House leadership seem not to have yet shucked the in-your-face politics of minority status. "In the House, our guy would not be [chairman] after a vote like that," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said of the Hatfield situation. But Sen. Phil Gramm, another ex-House member, got it right: "I've always felt more comfortable with trying to inspire people rather than trying to punish them."

Some critics of Senator Hatfield try to elevate the issue to one of principle. It isn't. Senator Hatfield is not unprincipled, any more than, say, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas is for having voted for the Balanced Budget Amendment this time, after voting against it in the past. Our advice to the principled purists on the Republican right (and the left wing of the Democratic Party) comes from a political philosopher so astute that both parties claim him. "Not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle," said Thomas Jefferson.

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