There’s an argument in the movie Lincoln about whether the Republican Party was intended to be a progressive or a conservative outfit. Francis Preston Blair, who boasts that he founded the party in his living room, insists that it’s conservative and anti-slavery, but shouldn’t be taken over by radical abolitionists. President Lincoln, who is trying to persuade Blair to support a constitutional amendment banning slavery, obviously wants it to be progressive.
For the first hundred years of the Republican Party’s existence, Lincoln’s vision was ascendant. Republicans were in the forefront of the great social issue of the 19th and 20th centuries: abolitionism, environmentalism, women’s suffrage, civil rights. The Democrats, a confederation of Southern whites and Northern Catholics, were the socially conservative party. William Jennings Bryan, who lost three presidential elections on the Democratic ticket, ended his career by defending creationism at the Scopes Monkey Trial. Even in the 1970s, most of the judges who signed on to Roe v. Wade were Republican appointees. And President Ford supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
By then, though, the Republican Party had begun to change, into a party of reaction, whose purpose was resisting the social movements of the 1960s: civil rights, feminism, pacifism, environmentalism. The Republicans basically switched bases with the Democrats, becoming the party of the South and Northern white ethnics -- a coalition assembled by Richard Nixon, whose “Southern Strategy” made the Republicans the dominant party of the 1970s and 1980s.
Seriously, the real answer is to run candidates who are fiscally conservative and principled, but socially moderate and modern. The GOP needs candidates that say “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. I will uphold it, even though my personal views are pro-life. And I will ALWAYS support exceptions for rape, incest, and when a mother’s life is in danger. Period.” The issue is off the table -- forever. What's left? The economy and jobs -- winning issues for the GOP.
Lincoln, a self-made man who transformed himself from a rural hick to a sharp railroad lawyer, certainly exemplified the Republican Party’s emphasis on hard work, personal responsibility and entrepreneurship. But he was also socially moderate and modern, a representative of mid-19th Century America’s emerging cosmopolitan middle class.
Where better to begin the Republican Party’s return to its roots as the Party of Lincoln than right here in the Land of Lincoln? The Illinois Republican Party is at the lowest point in its history, faced with a Democratic governor, Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, and an urbanized, educated, ethnically diverse electorate that is repelled by Tea Party fulminating against gays and immigrants.
A social conservative cannot win a statewide election in Illinois. This is a fact of life. The last Republican to win the governorship, George Ryan, was a liberal. Jettisoning his image as Phyllis Schlafly’s brother-in-arms in crushing the ERA, Ryan ran to the left of his Southern Democratic opponent on gay rights, and swept several lakefront wards in Chicago. As governor, Ryan instituted a moratorium on the death penalty. In the speech announcing he would not seek a second term, he spoke of his pride at carrying the Republican Party’s banner “in our hallowed Land of Lincoln.”
Illinois Republicans, you gave us the best political role model in American history. Follow his example to return to power and relevance -- and bring the rest of the Republican Party with you.