Coming Out Republican
I have to confess. I was a Democrat. It’s true, but I didn’t inhale. The decision to leave the party set me down the road of politics. Ironically, the man who put me on the path of Republican politics has always been an unapologetic Democrat. Coming out as a Republican to him turned out to be harder than I expected.
My childhood home was a chapter of the Democratic National Committee. Every four years, we would gather in front of the television for four straight days of indoctrination by the mother ship during the Democratic National Convention. Every election cycle was dominated by who needed votes or the terrible things that would happen if this Democrat or another lost.
People who believe that adults can easily brainwash children have never raised teenagers. I started running with a bad crowd – Young Republicans – getting myself into debates about the free market, U.S. foreign policy, even admiring tax cuts. I was a fan of President Ronald Reagan, but I couldn’t talk about that at home.
My father joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1959 and proudly served under his commander-in-chief, John F. Kennedy, on a helicopter transport carrier during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He is the ideal Democratic voter: supporter of the status quo candidate, votes faithfully in every election, and tireless champion of the party’s nominees. To demonstrate that point, I recall vividly the 1984 Democratic Primary where Colorado Senator Gary Hart challenged former Vice President Walter Mondale. Mondale was the party’s man, stalwart servant of former President Jimmy Carter; it was “his turn.” Like many young voters of the day, my sister chose the more exciting Hart, who four years later would achieve a level of scandal that is all too familiar now.
In 1984, the idea of supporting anyone but Mondale was heresy in our house, and my sister’s rebellion played through to the Democratic Convention. As my sister and father debated which candidate was better, I blurted out, “What difference does it make? Reagan’s going to win.” The chilling silence and stare made all too clear that I’d said those words out loud. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” my father said, and we left it at that. November came soon enough, and my amateur prognostication was overwhelmingly correct.
My first opportunity to vote came in 1988 as a registered Democrat. For reasons I’ll never understand, I cast my first vote for former Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt in the primary. By the 1988 general election, I voted for Libertarian candidate Ron Paul. It was not the last time I voted for Ron Paul or the Libertarian Party presidential nominee.
By 1990, I was a young college student volunteering for my first campaign for the First District of Maryland. The 1988 election had proven difficult for the incumbent Democrat, so seven Republican candidates filed for the race in 1990. I volunteered for a local state House member who seemed like a decent guy, working at a grocery store when he wasn’t representing the people in Annapolis. In those days, volunteers stuffed envelopes, licked stamps, waved signs, all the usual stuff to get your candidate elected. One night I was leaving, and the Campaign Manager stopped me because he’d noticed I wasn’t on the precinct list in my hometown.
“Oh, I’m a Democrat, so I’m probably not on the list.”
He looked at me for a second and said, “Hey, you’re a nice guy, and I’m sure you’re on the team, but don’t you think you should be registered to vote in the primary? I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression.”
He pulled out a registration form and handed it to me. “It’s totally up to you, but I can’t spend time explaining having you on the team if you’re going to stay a Democrat.”
Before he’d even finished the sentence, I’d started and almost finished filling out the form. I thought, “What did I care?” I honestly didn’t see a future in the Democratic Party, and I agreed with this candidate.
So, I handed the registration form back to the Campaign Manager and told him he could send it in, and I’d be back the next day. Simple and easy, right? Not really.
About two weeks later, I came home from college one day. My father and grandmother greeted me to have a serious chat. My father sat on one end at the dining room table and my grandmother at the other. My dad asked me to sit down. It seemed like one of those conversations where someone was in the hospital or dead.
“What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
My father pulled a card out and handed it to me. “You got this in the mail today.”
It was my voter registration card. “Okay. Where’s Mom? Everyone’s okay, right?”
I was waiting for a terrible shoe to drop.
“There’s a mistake on there, and I thought you ought to know so you can fix it.”
I looked at the card – name, address, everything checked out. “Looks right to me.”
“Can’t be.” my father is not known for shouting, but clearly, he was not happy, “That says you’re a Republican, and I know that’s not right.”
“Oh, that. I switched parties because…”
Those were my last words for about 45 minutes. My grandmother was a mild-mannered woman. She gave me the nickname “The Politician” after I’d gone into politics, and she called me that until the day she died. She was proud of me for going off to college, the first one in our family, but she wasn’t going to listen to nonsense.
So she and my father staged what I can only call an intervention to bring me back to my senses. Indeed someone had talked me into it; any explanation they could think of that I could not possibly mean registering as a Republican, and I needed to fix it. I listened, but I was in and staying.
My father and I spent the better part of the next decade arguing – not debating – politics, as I graduated from college and moved to Washington, DC, to work on Capitol Hill. After Thanksgiving Dinner of 2000, while the Bush/Gore election hung in the balance, the arguing reached its peak. My mother banned political talk during special occasions from that point forward. Once my father became a local elected official and had to work with people from all parties, I became his son, THE Republican. And I was no longer “mistaken.” Instead, I’d been raised to “think for myself.” I have to give the old man credit; he has spin.
My father was right; I was fiercely independent. But the switch happened because after I was exposed to ideas, I challenged them and formed my own opinions. That discovery made me understand the power of ideas and want to be a part of shaping policy. Those who don’t live in a world of politics may not see the difference between the operatives and the policy people, but there is a vast difference. While operatives know how to make campaigns run, work, and even succeed, they manage. The real power in politics was the policy, the “why” we fight for what we believe in, the leaders. Thanks to my parents, and an awkward coming out, I became a policy guy who worked in politics. Little did I know where that would put me in the years to come, but in the rearview mirror, it all makes sense now.
To borrow from Will Rogers, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Republican.” The Republican party has changed over the last thirty years. I went to Washington and became part of the Republican Revolution in 1994. Today, those so-called radicals are considered moderates, to be polite. While some of my colleagues have exited in the last few years, I’ve stayed. I was a malcontent Republican long before it was cool. You cannot put in the work and walk away when the system doesn’t work for you anymore—for all those former Republicans, leaving made the problem worse.
Congresswoman Liz Cheney said recently, “I am a conservative Republican. I believe strongly in the policies of low taxes and limited government, and a strong national defense. I think the country needs a strong Republican Party going forward, but our party has to choose. We can either be loyal to Donald Trump, or we can be loyal to the Constitution, but we cannot be both.” She’s right, and she needs more support.
There’s some fantasy among conservative-turned independents that the party will “hit rock bottom” or a third party will emerge. History is not on their side since our two-party system is both fixed and adaptive enough to survive without them. Now here’s the tough love, many of those same people were active enough over the past 30 years to contribute, in some way, to where the party is today. If you still believe in those principles, it’s time to help clean it up.