Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: The party obsessed with looking back

May 19, 2012

Sheila Suess KennedyIn 1980, I won the Republican primary for what was then Indiana’s 11th congressional district, defeating three opponents. I was pro-choice and on record supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians (same-sex marriage was not yet an issue), positions consistent with the generally libertarian Republicanism of the day. Indeed, my loss to Andy Jacobs Jr. in the general election was widely attributed to the belief that, as a “Goldwater Republican,” I was simply too conservative.

My political philosophy has not changed in the intervening 32 years, but now I’m routinely accused of being a leftist or socialist.

How far the political pendulum has swung! A pro-choice, pro-gay-rights candidate winning a Republican primary almost anywhere in the country would be inconceivable today.

In Indiana, even Richard Lugar—who had become steadily more conservative as the party’s center shifted more and more to the right—was deemed insufficiently pure by the rigid party base that now controls the GOP.

Gov. Daniels’ argument that Richard Mourdock is in the mainstream of the party is actually true, because the party today is more radical than at any point in my lifetime. The people I worked with on past Lugar campaigns and in the Hudnut administration are dispirited and dismayed; more and more often, they’re voting Democrat or simply staying home.

That brings me to the new slogan unveiled by the Obama campaign a few weeks ago: Forward. That slogan has generated a lot of derision from Republicans, but they may find their scorn is misplaced. In a very real sense, the 2012 general election will be a choice between going forward and going backward.

The president’s recent statement supporting same-sex marriage is just one example. The principle (which used to be a Republican principle) is that government should treat all citizens equally. Acceptance of the application of that principle to gays and lesbians is clearly the way forward.

The administration’s support for equal marriage rights is only one example. Yes, my students overwhelmingly endorse equal civil recognition for same-sex couples. But they also support administration proposals—vehemently opposed by Republicans—to ameliorate climate change, including government support for renewable energy and conservation. While the subject of abortion remains a thorny moral issue for many of them, they are repelled by efforts to humiliate women by mandating vaginal ultrasounds and similarly invasive procedures. And they are appalled by efforts to go backward by denying women access to contraception.

Whatever their opinions of much-maligned and poorly understood “Obamacare,” surveys confirm that most Americans agree with the proposition that our health care system is both economically and morally deficient, and that those deficiencies must be addressed.

Surveys also show huge majorities of Americans favor cutting the deficit by raising tax rates on the wealthy and favor reducing expenditures on defense. (In defiance, the House GOP recently voted to restore proposed defense cuts and to pay for that restoration not with taxes but by cutting services to poor women and children.)

In November, voters will have a choice between an administration that—while often clumsy and ham-handed—is on the right side on most of these issues, and a party that stubbornly rejects dealing with any of them.

At a time America desperately needs two substantive political parties offering competing solutions to the problems we face, one of them—the one I supported for 35 years—has simply gone off the rails. I miss that party. America misses that party.

Today’s GOP has come to be known as the Party of No, and it isn’t just Obama the party is rejecting. It’s rejecting modernity.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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