LOS ANGELES -- Once upon a time there was a political tribe called "liberal Republicans," led by chieftains named Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Mac Mathias and others. They were generally liberal on social issues and relatively conservative on fiscal issues.
They are extinct now. They were caught in a kind of pincer movement between conservative Republicans demanding ideological purity in their own party and more liberal Democrats, who were able to replace them by attacking them for not being liberal enough, particularly on issues like Vietnam and welfare. They were too liberal for their own party, but not quite liberal enough for the opposition. Some, in fact, like John Lindsay, just gave up and became Democrats. That never really worked, although conservative Democrats from the South, among them Strom Thurmond and Richard Shelby, were able to find Southern comfort in the Republican Party.
Then there were "moderate Republicans," say, Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe. They occasionally voted with Democrats, and harder-line Republicans punished them, driving them out of the party or out of politics altogether.
I have been thinking about those good old days, before politics turned toxic. There was a time, at least in Washington, when people in both parties were often neighbors and friends. Their children went to the same schools and the parents would chat on the sidelines of soccer games and such. They had dinners at each other's houses, even on holidays like Thanksgiving and Passover. And, yes, they often voted and debated against each other in Congress, then had a drink or two after the last gavel and talked about kids and the country.
No more. The halls of the Capitol are filled with hate and dirty looks.
What got me thinking was an interview in the current issue of Reason magazine with Sen. Jim DeMint, the 60-year-old junior senator from South Carolina, who has become a Republican power by raising money and campaigning for candidates like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. He is called "Senator Tea Party." DeMint was interviewed by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, and the headline was provocative enough to get me interested:
"The New Debate in the Republican Party Needs to Be Between Conservatives and Libertarians."
So much for moderates and moderation. Gillespie and Welch began their piece with a DeMint remark widely quoted in Republican circles:
"Right after the 2010 midterm elections brought a wave of DeMint-backed Tea Party freshmen to Capitol Hill, the Palmetto State's junior senator proclaimed that 'you can't be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative,' a comment that was widely viewed as a slap at libertarians. DeMint, a reliable defender of the PATRIOT Act and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is an avowed opponent of what he calls the 'destructive forces of secularism.' He is a staunch pro-lifer, has favored a constitutional ban on flag burning, and is on the record saying that gays shouldn't be allowed to teach in public schools."
In the interview, DeMint makes an obvious attempt to make peace with libertarians -- who disagree with him on all those conservative personal and military issues -- or at least begin a dialogue between the two right wings of his party. Again and again, he praises libertarian icon Ron Paul and says conservatives like himself have got to listen to the cranky old Texas congressman (and father of Rand Paul).
"I don't like it when folks say I'm Senator Tea Party," said DeMint. "I didn't start the Tea Party, but they came along and they were espousing the same concerns I had. This is a very divergent group of Americans. I find libertarians, conservatives, independents, people who've never been involved with politics, some recovering liberals -- they're just concerned mostly about the spending and the debt and the growing, intrusive government. That's uniting people. They don't agree on the social issues, they don't agree on the military and all of those things, but they know our country is in trouble, and that's why they're so potent. They are the united aspect of what the Republican Party needs to embrace right now."
He emphasizes the issues old-line conservatives agree on, especially smaller and decentralized government, and makes a stab at supporting the individual freedom libertarians adore. Enough. He says much more; he is the man with a plan to create a new, united Republican Party and we will be hearing a lot more of him in the coming years.