Opinion: It’s dead, Jim


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James Carville may think he was a show-stopper –- in the bad sense. But for me there was a poignancy to former Iowa U.S. Rep. Jim Leach’s soporific speech Monday night at the Democratic National Convention. Leach is a member of that vanishing breed, the liberal or Rockefeller Republican, and there was a freak-show aspect to his appearance in Denver. In justifying his defection, Leach offered a selective litany of progressive positions taken by past Republican presidents and lamented the loss of bipartisanship in Washington.

I have a soft spot for liberal Republicans partly because they held sway in my home state of Pennsylvania for so long. Governors like Bill Scranton, Ray Shafer, Dick Thornburgh (before his drift to the right) and Tom Ridge were the mainstream of the Republican Party in the Commonwealth. Rick Santorum came from a different wing of the party, which remains the new mainstream despite Santorum’s defeat two years ago.


That John McCain is considered a moderate Republican is a measure how much the center of gravity in the party has shifted. Genuine moderate Republicans remain in the Senate, but they are an endangered species. I count four: Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine; Dick Lugar of Indiana.

My nostalgia for liberal Republicans is as much cultural as it is political. The pejorative term for them is “country club Republicans” who, like Leach and the first President Bush, often belonged to the Episcopal Church, a denomination disproportionately represented in power élites and in news coverage (what editor can resist a gay-bishop story?).

I may be the only one to see this parallel, but liberal Republicans have always struck me as the political equivalent of Anglo-Catholics: those high-church Episcopalians who in their liturgy with its “smells and bells” are more Catholic than the pope they don’t acknowledge. Liberal Republicans live a similarly paradoxical existence in the political world, espousing positions (at least on social issues) more common in the opposing party. We should pray –- in an Episcopal Church, of course –- for their resurrection.

AP photo by Charlie Neibergall