OCALA, Fla., June 3, 2014 — The Republican Party is in a difficult spot.
In recent years, it has followed path after path only to wind up at the same intersection. This is where the interests of social conservatives and fiscal watchdogs meet. Neither side is ceding an inch for control over the GOP’s future.
Until five years ago, when President Obama defeated U.S. Senator John McCain, fiscal and social conservatives generally managed to put up with one another. There were skirmishes, but nothing that the Republican establishment couldn’t stomach.
Now there are factions of incumbent and retired public officeholders who are trying to defeat each other. Powerful political action groups have replaced the Republican National Committee as a support base for prospective candidates. Heated discussions formerly relegated to smoky backrooms are now aired on cable television and blogged about across the Internet.
The times have changed, and quickly.
Fred Karger has been around to see them change. A career political operative, he rose to prominence by consulting on the campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole. His most famous cause, though, is not for a single politician, but an extremely divisive issue: same-sex marriage.
Karger brought much attention to the matter when he ran for the GOP’s presidential nomination during 2012’s primaries. In doing so, he became the first openly gay candidate for the presidency.
These days, he promotes not only LGBT rights, but also moderate Republican politics as a commentator.
“I have always believed in the founding principles of the Republican Party,” Karger explained to me last year. “It has stood for smaller government, personal empowerment, a strong national defense, tough on crime, lower taxes and keeping government out of our lives.
“Back then conservatives had a heart and believed that government should be there for those who truly could not take care of themselves. Somewhere along the way these principals got hijacked and instead a mean-spirited conservative movement took hold. I want to help bring the GOP back to its roots of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Change happens best from within and I want to be a part of that change back to our roots.”
Throughout Karger’s career, the GOP brand has morphed from mid-1970s cosmopolitanism to late-twentieth century Christian conservatism to contemporary Tea Party ideology. What is the most valuable thing that he has learned from his profession?
“As then General Dwight Eisenhower said, ‘Public opinion wins wars.’ Our job as operatives and leaders is to help change hearts and minds — to move public opinion,” Karger explains. “That is one very important reason that I ran for president in 2012. As the first openly gay candidate to run for president from a major political party in history, I wanted to do it as a Republican.
“I wanted my fellow candidates for president and the 37 million Republicans around the country to know that there was an openly gay man running for the highest office in the land and that he was a Republican.
“I feel very strongly that the Republican Party should open up the flaps of its tent and allow everyone in, just as my old boss Ronald Reagan used to say. We are a minority party, and the only way to become a majority party is to reach out to women, younger people, the LGBT community, minorities and the disenfranchised on issues important to them.
“We also need to practice civility in politics in order to move forward. Our leaders must once again put our country first instead of just looking ahead to the next election.”
The problem with civility in today’s politics, whether on the left or the right, is that people seem to want fire and brimstone. America is an angry nation, and stands more divided than at any other time in modern history.
It is this conundrum that drives moderates out of both the Democratic and Republican mainstreams. By appealing to the emotional highs of partisan radicalism, our nation’s major parties have built a monster which is now hard at work on consuming them.
How can the GOP find its way when few in power have the good sense to read a map?