He was the moderate Republican. He liked to be friendly with everybody, and didn’t much like to talk about things he couldn’t nail down, least of all religion and sexual morality. Even those who disagreed with him couldn’t deny there was always logic in his arguments, an internal coherence. In foreign policy, he famously spoke softly and carried a big stick. He didn’t forget the part about speaking softly.
Today three Tennessee U.S. senatorial candidates try to outflank each other on the right, each of them more skeptical about global warming than most scientists are, each of them leaning harder against worker status for undocumented immigrants than President Bush is, each of them accusing each other of harboring attitudes toward the legality of abortion that are as liberal as those still shared by a majority of Americans.
The moderate may seem to have gone missing, but he’s still there. Waiting politely, as is his way. Or, in some cases, not so politely. Ask some Republicans about whether they like the current state of their party, and you may have to wait for a moment before you get a printable response.
The crowd of perhaps 300 was almost entirely white (our reporter did count one Asian), but was diverse in one respect that may have something to do with the strength of the party today.
The setting was swank, a large estate, the tent set up within the circular driveway right in front of the sort of postwar posh home real-estate booklets showcase on the cover. A lot of the attendees wore dress-casual clothes, and in the adjacent field were dozens of Lexuses and Mercedes. It could almost have passed for a country-club crowd, except that within it were also men in tractor caps or sporty comb-overs, men who looked like they’d gone home after work to put on a fresh short-sleeved shirt. The band was a workingman’s bluegrass band, and the food dished out was middle-of-the-road pork barbecue sandwiches.
Those who fret about parallels between the Bush-era Republican Party and the early Nazi Party, which after threats of terrorism emphasized hyperpatriotism, might take some consolation from this assemblage. This doesn’t look much like a putsch . It seems more like a crowd scene in downtown Mayberry the day that Aunt Bea’s preserves are declared to be swell. Many of the speakers’ words, about patriotism or balancing the budget or getting a handle on immigration, would play about as well at a Democratic rally.
On a platform beneath a tent, an MC tries to get the crowd’s attention to introduce former congressman and senatorial candidate Van Hilleary. But folks keep standing around talking and laughing, dishing out more barbecue, going for another Coke, and it’s never clear that more than half of the crowd is paying much attention as the man with the high lilt declare that he’s “100 percent pro-life, 100 percent for the NRA, 100 percent for balancing the budget.”
The “pro-life” line may be the only allusion to abortion from any of the campaigners. Like the other lines from the speaker’s thin voice, it draws no response from the distracted audience.
The only issues that draw very noticeable applause come later, with a couple of remarks about immigration reform, and when a long-shot gubernatorial candidate promises no state income tax.
“Some of our folks have joined the Democrats,” Hilleary warns, without elaborating. “And now we’re spending money like there’s no tomorrow.”
Another candidate, Ed Bryant, follows him. He says the three big issues are immigration, gasoline prices, and overspending. In the previous few days, his TV and Internet campaign has emphasized his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. But on the stump, he seems like an old-fashioned fiscal Republican. “Don’t overtax, don’t overregulate, don’t overspend.”
Still, he doesn’t capture any more of the crowd’s attention than Hilleary did. Judging by the frequency of their TV ads, these are two of the biggest Republican celebrities in Tennessee this summer, but given a chance to hear them speak, many Republicans decide it’s time to get some more barbecue.
It’s not clear that it’s a deliberate shunning. Hilleary and Bryant are followed by a surprise appearance by country star Con Hunley, who, even when the MC asks that the crowd welcome him, receives almost no applause, either. They’re preoccupied with their own conversations and sandwiches. With the bluegrass band he sings a couple of songs rarely heard in Baptist churches, “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Let Me Be Your Salty Dog.”
Then Bob Corker arrives late, either by accident or tactical finesse. By then, everyone is finished eating, and the program is recognizing local Republican heroes parading one by one, each greeted with a honk from an antique horn. Gubernatorial candidate Jim Bryson speaks, drawing some applause for lines about standing against illegal immigration and a state income tax.
Corker’s brief talk emphasizes U.S. competitiveness, energy policy, immigration, and not spending beyond our means. Maybe because his audience’s stomachs are now full, Corker gets a much warmer response than his rivals did.
Some say they are happy with the party as it is. Some disagree with one or more planks of their party’s platform but have chosen to accept the sum of the whole.
Others say they have parted ways with a party they believe has veered too far to the social right wing, in so doing abandoning its own principles.
But others still insist it hasn’t changed much at all. Like several in elected office or leadership positions in the party, former Knox County Republican chair Chad Tindell, who came of age during the Reagan administration, says he has observed no major change in his party. “Many, including me, still see it as the party of Baker, Dunn, Brock, Alexander and others.
“I think Tennessee is generally a moderate Republican state,” he says. “We hear a lot about being a ‘conservative.’ But don’t look at the campaigns—look at the voters. Ed Bryant ran against Lamar Alexander in 2002, portraying himself as more conservative. I was Lamar’s local chair. Lamar won that race by a substantial margin. This year Bob Corker is being portrayed by both Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary as less conservative in the current Senate race, but appears to have a substantial advantage with likely Republican voters.”
“I think Tennessee is definitely Republican, but the ‘conservative’ message is heard far more in the primary. It’s not what carries the day with voters.”
Several Republicans we spoke to expect the right-wing posturing on subjects like abortion to soften after Thursday’s primary.
“There may be some who perceive the Republican Party in Tennessee as strongly ‘conservative,’” Tindell says. “But that means different things to different people. Though they are more closely aligned, being a Republican and being a conservative is not the same thing. It may also depend on the issue at hand. When we work together, Tennessee is a Republican lock. But, I don’t think there’s any question that Bredesen got elected with the help of some Republicans.”
Judging by the Halls rally, he may have a point. The crowd never seems quite right-wing, religious or not.
Still, it’s a common perception that the party has shifted in the last generation—that it’s moved more to the right than in the days of Howard Baker and the Nixon-Ford administration. Many also refer to the man they remember as “the old Lamar” Alexander, the Republican governor who had a reputation as an environmentalist and a progressive champion of public education. Today, some supporters like Tindell insist Alexander is still a moderate—but when he gets in the national news as a senator, it’s about flag-burning, liberal professors or his resolute stand that the national anthem should never be sung in any language but English.
Alexander still supports some progressive initiatives, even parting with the president to support environmental policies to protect his home region, but for the time being, he seems content, or obliged, to spin himself as a right-leaning patriot.
Alexander’s fellow senator, the retiring Bill Frist, is by most accounts among Tennessee’s, most socially conservative senators in memory, defending the right to life even for the persistentantly vegetative. In Nixon-cabinet Republican John W. Dean’s book, Conservatives Without Conscience , Frist is one of seven illustrative examples on cover, along with Pat Robertson, Dick Cheney, and Carl Rove.
Is it a shift, or a rift? Whether and why it has changed, and whether it’s a good thing for the long-term health of the Republican Party and the republic in general, is, naturally, a matter of some disagreement.
The South has such a deep reputation for conservatism that it might be easy for anyone who had moved to Tennessee in the last dozen years to assume it had never been any different. Tennessee’s in the South, therefore its politics are right-wing, its voters entrenched, its social values determined by the concerns of the current generation of fundamentalists.
But for decades, the East Tennessee Republican has been a different beast, showing some independence from its region; as the rest of the South elected Strom Thurmonds and Jesse Helmses and Trent Lotts and Newt Gingriches, Tennessee kept representing itself with moderate Republicans and practical Democrats.
But in some ways, Tennessee, and especially East Tennessee, is an exception that may reflect its unique history.
The Republican Party has gone through some crazy twists and turns over the last 150 years. Founded as a party to resist the expansion of slavery, it was the Yankee party during the Civil War—which is precisely why it kept early strength in East Tennessee, a region that held perhaps the South’s highest concentration of Unionists.
It was then the nation’s first civil-rights party, the choice of blacks throughout the South, and even for a time had a Radical wing that was punitive to former Confederates. For that reason, the Republican Party didn’t catch on in the South for over a century. But the first Republican congressman from Tennessee’s 2nd District, Massachusetts-born Knoxvillian Horace Maynard, effectively the founder of the Republican’s unbroken hold on that seat, sometimes allied himself with the anti-Confederate Radicals. As did controversial “Parson” William G. Brownlow, the Knoxvillian governor and senator who was, for better or worse, perhaps the South’s most famous Republican of the 19th century. Knoxville apparently owes the presence of the University of Tennessee to Reconstruction Republicans in Nashville, who rewarded the small school on the Hill in the state’s most Republican-leaning city with the designation of the state’s official public university.
Late in the 19th century, the party developed a reputation as the rich man’s party; but then, mainly via Teddy Roosevelt, as the nation’s first party to make a major issue of protecting the environment. Roosevelt was popular here, visited often, and witnessed some of the early development of the conservation movement that eventually spawned the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which began as a Republican initiative.
Throughout the 20th century, it was the party opposed to taxation, and because they were opposed to taxation, they were especially leery of expensive projects, like wars. Republican President William Howard Taft, who was also especially popular in Knoxville and visited here repeatedly, was known for giving his Peace Speech against involvement in overseas wars. As late as 1990, some Tennessee Republicans were known to boast that no 20th-century Republican president had gotten the United States involved in a war. War was federal spending at a level rarely approached by social programs, and eventually it called for tax hikes, sometimes major ones. Congressman Jimmy Duncan’s remarkable stand against the Iraq invasion has deep Republican roots.
Tennessee Republicanism may have been a moderation learned from pragmatism. In the 1950s, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower denounced TVA as “creeping socialism.” The Knoxville area was traditionally Republican, but the Democratic-administration project was long one of the metro area’s biggest employers. Tennessee Republican politicians have tended to be protective of the agency, and even the battling right-wing senatorial candidates have praised it.
Tennessee’s two Democratic senators during Ike’s administration had been moderate-to-liberal Democrats, Albert Gore, Sr., and Estes Kefauver. In the 1960s, when the Southern Democratic Party was still the socially conservative party, skeptical of civil-rights legislation, Tennessee elected Howard Baker, its first Republican senator since Reconstruction. He represented one of the first cracks in the “Solid South,” the long era when the mostly conservative and historically segregationist Democratic Party dominated the South. By the accession of Bill Brock 1970, Tennessee became the South’s first state to be represented by two Republicans.
Baker, whose sharp questioning in the Watergate hearings had helped bring down the Nixon administration, showed himself to be a smart, flexible, and independent-minded moderate. Because he thought it was fair, he supported the Panama Canal Treaty, though it was unpopular with the patriotic right. Baker was no hippie but grew his hair long for a Republican and took photographs, betraying an artsy side that separated him from the button-down Republican archetype.
Howard Baker, was, along with John Anderson and George H.W. Bush, one of several moderate Republicans who ran for the nomination in 1980.
Then a still-youthful 54, Baker struck some as the new face of what some were coming to see as a party of grayish moneyed curmudgeons. He was popular with the nation as a whole—and if the Senate had had power to elect a president, some senators said, they would have picked Baker—but in 1980, Republican-primary voters favored the harder, sharper lines of Reagan.
Fiscal Republicans learned that the working classes, which had previously been swayed by Democratic promises of minimum wages and federal protection for union organization, could be also reached through emotional channels, especially those connected to patriotism or religion. Collectively, the working class provided a powerful engine for winning elections.
What happened has some irony to it. Before 1980, religious issues rarely entered national politics in any very partisan way. Politicians were assumed to be Christian, in some vague sort of way—but most supporters of, say, Eisenhower or Goldwater didn’t know what denomination they were, or whether they ever went to church. Early on, Baker supported his father-in-law Everett Dirksen’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in schools, a move that helped shore up working-class social conservatives in 1960s Tennessee who might otherwise have been disaffected from the Republican Party.
But it turned out to be the moderate/liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter who brought charismatic Christianity to the forefront of politics; Carter popularized the phrase “born again.”
Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher. Reagan wasn’t much of a churchgoer. But Reagan told the voters of the right, especially Catholics and working-class Southerners, what they wanted to hear. He was against abortion, supported voluntary prayer in public schools and questioned the science behind the theory of evolution.
There were other concerns, of course. Five years after the utter defeat of South Vietnam, and the year after Iranian revolutionaries took a whole embassy hostage, many Americans were concerned about the nation’s standing in the world. And even former Keynesians were worrying about the viability of deficit-spending and the wisdom of the ballooning debt. Reagan at least promised to fix all that.
“There were three wings of the Republican Party: the social wing, the fiscal-conservative wing, and the foreign-policy wing,” Moyers says, echoing assessments of most historians of the GOP. “Ronald Reagan brought all these together.”
Whether Reagan fulfilled those expectations in his eight years in office is another question, but he was unquestionably popular, and the collapse of the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union, helped exalt him to saintly status. Reagan resonated especially in what used to be called the Solid South. On the cover of a recent history by Earl and Merle Black called The Rise of the Southern Republicans , the biggest photo is of the Californian, shaking southern hands.
He eventually hired his former opponent, Howard Baker, to be his second chief of staff, consolidating his party. By then, many of the old moderates seemed to give in. They learned to hitch their wagon to the fundamentalist horse. Pragmatism was, after all, a hallmark of the moderates.
Republicans have enjoyed the victories the alliances have brought, even as some of them cringe at some of the implications. Republicans worry that they can no longer claim to favor states’ rights, with less federal intervention, for example, when they’re insisting on federal intervention to prevent one state, Massachusetts, from legalizing gay marriage.
The late Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator and 1964 presidential nominee was once pilloried by the left as a right-wing fanatic, but in the ‘90s he was perplexed by his party’s newfound social conservatism. “I can’t see any way in the world that being a gay can cause damage to anybody else,” he said.
Under the tent at that Republican rally in Halls, Reagan’s name was evoked more than God’s.
“The party went south, as far as I was concerned, when it became so conservative,” she says. She’s not talking about Reagan, whom she supported.
The year 1994 was the year of Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, with a tide of conservative rhetoric that almost out-Reaganed Reagan. It was, incidentally, the year conservative Tennessee Republicans Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant were first elected to Congress. The campaigns emboldened right-wing religious groups to get involved in politics as never before. It was then that DeSelm says she saw what seemed to her an ugly side to her party.
Suddenly, she says, her colleagues were introducing what she regarded as frivolous resolutions concerning nudity or flag-burning that seemed either unconstitutional or redundant, and people arrived at County Commission meetings by the dozens to cheer. She believes the Christian Coalition was behind it all, and that the resolutions were introduced only to identify and pillory those members of Commission who didn’t meet their pre-defined standards of social conservatism. “They spotted those who opposed them as ‘too liberal,’” she says. “They brought in people by the busload to lobby against us.”
Gamely she kept voting for Republicans as she watched her party drift farther to the right. “I supported Frist the first time,” she says. “But that undid me.” She does still support Rep. Jimmy Duncan. “Unfortunately, I think the ultra-conservatives are after him, too.”
Congressman Duncan’s campaign feels obliged to cite that the incumbent has been called the “sixth most conservative member in the House”; he’s facing a challenge, not so much from the left this time as from the right. Campaigners for Ralph McGill, a states’-rights, anti-income-tax conservative, were in evidence at the Halls rally, which Duncan did not attend.
“You can’t get a moderate elected today,” DeSelm says, “because the parties are too extreme.” She mentions the possibility of a third, moderate party’s emergence. “That would take some leadership,” she says.
Some regard Commissioner John Schmid, who represents DeSelm’s old Bearden-area district, as a “moderate,” but he describes himself as a conservative. “I was an admirer of Reagan and still am,” he says.
But he talks about having to contend with the “paleoconservatives” in the party, based mostly in rural areas, who are “against everything.” He sees them as the legacy of postwar anti-tax demagogue Cas Walker, and many would regard that as a compliment.
“When we get more growth and development, I think we’ll have more moderation,” Schmid says. He says party politics mean different things at the local level—“it’s more about personality than ideology,” he says—and may not reflect platforms of the national party.
“I see it as a problem for the country in that the candidates tend to focus on issues that may not have much to do with their constituents’ lives. Flag-burning, gay marriage—I may feel like they do about those issues,” he says, as the conservative he is. But he adds that those emotional flashpoint issues aren’t affecting people’s real lives—“They’re not eating up America like the war, the economy, and gas prices.” True enough, few East Tennesseans have ever witnessed either a flagburning or a gay marriage.
Schmid blames the misdirected focus in part on the fact that the media has gotten compartmentalized. “In Baker’s day, the media was focused on the two daily papers,” he says. “Now there are targeted messages to specific groups.”
He says Democratic senatorial candidate Ford is “doing a very good job of hitting moderate issues. Corker, should he win, will move toward a moderate base.”
Schmid blames the complacent middle for their lack of voice in the dialogue. “The vast majority don’t get involved in politics anymore,” he says. “That leaves the activists,” he says, to set the agendas and decide on the tone of the campaign.
The fact that all three Republican senatorial candidates are trying to seem as conservative—by the most modern, not to say liberal, definition of the word—as they can, is taken for granted.
But talk to Republican supporters privately, and many are against the war—or are OK with worker status for immigrants, as proposed by President Bush. After all, a large non-union work force laboring under terms agreeable to both parties has been a Republican ideal for decades.
In a recent campaign ad, though, Corker, Tennessee senatorial candidate from Chattanooga, is shown walking along the Mexico-Arizona border, declaring that there will be “no amnesty” for immigrants who arrived in the country illegally. “Those who want to become citizens must learn the English language.”
Republicans traditionally like what’s good for business. Any Tennessee Republicans who like the economic and cultural changes brought by the immigration wave of recent years, and who favor the pragmatic initiative proposed by the Bush administration, to grant legal-worker status to qualifying immigrants who immigrated illegally, don’t have an option this election day. Tennessee Republicans have a choice of three candidates who are all dead-set against legal-worker status—who are, in that regard at least, more conservative than President Bush.
America today is probably more skeptical of the idea that there are governmental solutions to poverty. Americans may well be less willing to sacrifice to save the environment, such as those of the days of the 55 m.p.h. speed limit. Americans today may well show less tolerance for unpatriotic gestures, whether it’s a pop star ridiculing a president in a foreign country or singing the national anthem in the wrong language.
In some cases, though, the nation has liberalized in more profound ways. In the supposedly liberal 1970s, graphic references to sex, criticism of religion, cursing of any sort was kept off prime time and rare on television or radio in general. Gays remained closeted except in the biggest cities.
In 1977, the year Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, it was a scandal when, just after midnight on Saturday Night Live , Jane Curtin tore open her blouse—to reveal that she was wearing a bra. Though it was at midnight, television stations around the heartland cancelled the show.
You can trace some of the see-saw changes in society through one sitcom called M*A*S*H . Among the most popular television shows of all time, bore a dependably liberal message. General MacArthur, once a conservative Republican hero, was repeatedly portrayed as a buffoon, and on the show patriotism in general was regarded with some suspicion in ways that would probably not pass today.
But in M*A*S*H , nearly every time they presented the transvestite Klinger, they very scrupulously showed him as a red-blooded heterosexual. Few American soldiers got to date much during the Korean War, but somehow Klinger did—just to prove again and again to viewers that he wasn’t gay. In the liberal ’70s, a gay character on a prime-time show would have been unconscionable.
Since then, representations of sex, even in prime-time sitcoms, have become not only common, but nearly obligatory. A single episode of Desperate Housewives or even The Simpsons might have shocked most of the hippies at Woodstock.
Never mind Top 40 radio. The images suddenly permissible in the media reflect real changes in behavior. Premarital “cohabitation” or babies born “out of wedlock,” still potentially scandalous in the liberal ‘70s, are so common today we rarely hear mention of those phrases anymore.
The socially conservative groundswell in the Republican Party may represent a stunned response to some pretty enormous social and sexual changes in society. And maybe some misplaced anxiety. Conservatives do see that marriage is undermined in modern society, and may jump at the chance to support a “marriage-protection amendment,” even if gays in Massachusetts have no effect on the problems that concern them most.
Whether the changes wrought by the sexual revolution will seem positive or not is up to sociologists of the future to discern. For Joe Republican, new attitudes toward sex may take more than a generation or two to adjust to.
Thirty years ago, gay marriage was not a “family value.” It wasn’t a liberal ideal, either. It wasn’t a hippie value or a Marxist value. It just wasn’t on the radar. The right was worried that the social liberalism would eventually nullify marriage—not expand its franchise.
Gay marriage is such a new concept that most liberals haven’t even heard of it until recent years. It’s hard to use gay marriage as a yardstick for the changing face of conservatism.
Abortion, though, has some history as an issue, and it may be the most striking way to read the changes in the party.
In the case of Roe v. Wade, abortion was OKed for the first time in U.S. history in early 1973 by a Republican-dominated Supreme Court during a recently re-elected Republican administration.
Abortion was not always a sharply partisan issue. George H.W. Bush was believed to support abortion rights when he first ran for president in 1980. As late as 1981, the year Reagan was inaugurated, a Harris Poll indicated that Republicans were more likely to be pro-choice than Democrats; 62 percent of Republicans nationwide favored legal first-trimester abortion, compared to only 54 percent of Democrats. That may reflect in part the traditional affiliation of Catholics with Democrats, which eroded during the Reagan years, along with remaining Dixiecrats, the old conservative Democrats of the South. (According to post-Reagan Harris Polls, of course, Republicans are more likely to favor banning abortions than Democrats.)
Tennessee’s two senators at the time that abortion was legalized were both Republicans, Howard Baker and Bill Brock. Neither raised memorable objections. Baker at one point proposed that the question be left up to the states, but in general he seemed queasy about the subjective morals of the debate, reportedly finding both sides frustratingly intractable. In return, both sides regarded the moderate senator with some suspicion. Exaggerating a vote by Baker for federally funded abortions in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life, a Catholic monsignor called Baker a “leader of the pro-abortion forces.” Baker was famous in the Senate for his genius for compromise, but abortion was one of the few issues in which compromise didn’t seem to have any place.
Frances Metcalf is 87. She was East Tennessee chairman for the Nixon-Lodge campaign, the Republican ticket that faced JFK in 1960. She still considers herself a Republican, but she says she feels disaffected from her party. Though she voted for George W. Bush both times, she says she did so just because she disliked the other guys more.
“The last time, I didn’t like the Republicans, and I didn’t like the Democrats, either. But I voted for the Republicans just because everybody else was. Then look what I did.”
She admits she differs with her party on some key issues. She brings up abortion in particular. “I don’t think you should bring a child into the world with nobody to care for it.”
When asked about their personal views of individual planks in their party’s platform, many Republicans we spoke to, at the rally and on the phone, asked not to be quoted by name. One West Knoxville woman who says she is Republican, thinks of the Republican Party mainly as the one that favors minimizing the federal government. “I’m against big government,” she says. “The fewer federal laws, the better,” she says—though she allows she might favor adding one more to prevent gay marriage.
However, she parts with her party on at least one issue. “I would qualify myself as pro-choice,” she says. She admits she often votes for candidates who aren’t.
“I know that for a lot of people that’s made to be a big issue, but it’s not real high on my list.”
A young Republican businessman attending the Republican rally admits he has nothing against abortion. “I’m not interested in legislating morality,” he says. “To me, it’s a moral issue, not a government issue.” Of the pro-life faction in his party, he says, “It’s a small group, but it’s the loudest. It’s like everybody thinks all Islamic people are terrorists. It’s only a small percentage. But they’re the loudest.”
Actually, some recent polls indicate that most Republicans today indicate that opposition to abortion within the party may now be around 50 percent, perhaps more.
One Republican officeholder up for re-election politely declines to address the issue. He’s been so busy with local issues, he says, that he hasn’t had time to assess the Republican platform on a national basis, as it affects issues like the war and abortion.
It’s hard to blame anybody for ducking the question. For a Republican in a party that’s quietly, almost secretly, divided, there’s not a good answer.
Many are frustrated with what they see as a growing hypocrisy in their own party. Businessman Bob Hilton was a lifelong Republican until after the election of Bush in 2000. “You invest in what you believe in,” he says. “And the Republicans now don’t believe in anything. The party has now abandoned its fundamentals.”
Former UT Chancellor Bill Snyder was raised in Knoxville a “rock-ribbed Republican,” and remembers supporting Eisenhower as a young man in the ’50s, even when Eisenhower was running against a ticket that included UT grad Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956.
Snyder later moved to New York, where he maintained strong ties with the Republican Party of Nelson Rockefeller. “Jacob Javits was a hero of mine,” he says of the longtime Republican senator from New York. He returned to Knoxville about 25 years ago, and found some familiar surnames on the ballot. “I’ve always supported the Duncans,” he says.
Though he considers himself a moderate and sometimes leans toward the Democrats, Snyder said he still often votes Republican. Recently he has publicly supported the Republican judicial candidate Andrew Jackson. “And I vote for Jimmy Duncan, always,” he adds. “He’s kind of conservative, and I don’t agree with him on some things, but he’s a genteel politician, not out for the mudslinging, like some people are.”
But he says a “shrill kind of Republican” has come to dominate the GOP. “There clearly is a religious trend in this country: the expansion of fundamentalists and evangelical religious groups, people who are single-minded on certain issues.
“The leadership, starting with George W. Bush, has appealed to them in a pandering way,” Snyder says. “There’s a shrillness that takes place, a lack of the cordiality that used to exist. I’d put a lot of that at the feet of the evangelical base.
“If Republicans suffer some pretty major losses, they may have to rethink. But I don’t see any trend of change at this point.”
City Councilman Chris Woodhull is best known for his work with inner-city youth and his progressive views on making diversity work in the city.
“I think of myself as a moderate Republican,” he says. He campaigned for Republican nominee John Anderson in 1980 and began his career in politics by way of an Anderson program.
“There’s a real meanness in the party now, that bothers me. It’s almost vicious.”
Maverick investment planner Robert Loest, Navy veteran, biologist, and former blacksmith whose free-market survival-of-the-fittest models of capitalism earned him national attention during the ’90s, always identified more with the Republican Party. During the Clinton era he often found himself the ideological conservative in a roomful of liberals, and he relished the opportunity to explain their faults.
“There used to be meeting of minds between Republicans and Libertarians, which is really what I am,” he says.
“I’m interested in conservatism in the classical sense: conserving the values that got us where we are, and the conservation of resources. The Republicans have turned it on its ear, made it a dirty word.”
Things have changed—and like some other Republicans disappointed at the extreme course of their party, Loest blames it in large part on the Democrats. He says the Democratic Party started it all in 1972 by swinging too far to the left. “In response to that, the Republicans swung back. It became a vicious negative spiral. One side gets extreme, the other gets extreme in response.
“There’s a basic precept of democracy: It’s a basic philosophical assumption of goodwill—without which you can’t have a functioning democracy.”
He says the Christian conservatives of the Republican Party are saying, “if you don’t think like we do, you’re wrong.” It leaves no room for discussion or compromise. “It’s an abandonment of goodwill. It renders democracy impossible.”
He associates the new Republican Party with another famous religious right-wing political movement, the Taliban. He occasionally calls his old party the Republiban .
“I voted for Bush in 2000,” he says. “It was the worst goddamn mistake I ever made in my life. I was mad at Gore and wasn’t paying enough attention to Bush.”
Loest refers to his old Republican ally, Brent Minchey, a sometime conservative activist who got some attention a couple of years ago for opposing downtown development plans that would have called for major public investment.
An old Reagan Republican from South Carolina, Minchey always supported Republican presidential candidates through Bush’s 2000 campaign; he thought of the Republicans as the gun-rights party and the party that believed the federal government should be kept in check. “It was the idea that government was corrupt, and that less you trusted it, the better. It turned out we had to wait for Bush 43 to know how corrupt it could be.”
He thinks the GOP has been hijacked by image-makers who discovered the efficacy of misleading catch-phrases like “death tax” and “partial-birth abortion,” generated by Republican pundits but now used in journalism. “I think they just got too good at playing the game,” he says.
Most talk about the current right-wing emphasis on emotional hot-button subjects as if it’s relatively new, whether it started in 2000, 1994, or 1980. But in an article in Harper’s , Pulitzer-winning reporter David Halberstam contrasted senatorial candidate Bill Brock’s mild-mannered personal style with that of his 1970 campaign: “…newspaper ads and television ads are hitting away daily at the most emotional issues they can touch. His media firm came down here a year and a half ago and found that the five most emotional issues were race, gun control, the war, busing, and prayer, and they are making this the campaign. Keep Gore answering false charges.”
That was Albert Gore, Sr., of course. So maybe we’ve been here before.
Howard Baker, now 80 years old, is still a senior partner in the law firm of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell and Berkowitz, which has offices in downtown Knoxville and the former senator’s home town of Huntsville. He is recovering from back surgery and was not available to comment for this article. But at a Memphis Downtown Rotary Club meeting last October, responding to a question about the right-wing tendencies of his party, he answered that he expected the GOP “will right itself” from its ultra-conservative leanings. Concerning the party’s current tilt, he added, “That’s not permanent. The party system’s going to survive it.... Cyclical changes will prevent any permanent pattern of extremism. Change may seem far off, but it’s just around the corner.”