Finding a place for a knee-jerk centrist

September 2, 2014

Following the recent death of James Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, many people fondly recalled the man’s wit, political savvy and kindness.

Locally, his passing elicited strong reactions because he and his wife had a house in the Cape Region. Nationally, the coverage was also extensive, including repeated clips of the day Brady was shot during an attempt on the president’s life.

For me, the most startling clip was one of Reagan offering his full-throated support for the Brady Bill, which required background checks for firearm sales.

Here was the man known as Mr. Conservative throwing his considerable political weight behind a gun-control measure. No Republican today would take such a position. Reagan took other stands that would be anathema to today’s Republicans.

Republicans talk about tax cuts for the rich, calling them necessary to spur the “job creators.” Here’s how Reagan approached the issue. “Do you think the millionaire ought to pay more in taxes than the bus driver - or less?” Reagan asked a crowd. They readily cheered “More!” - just as the president intended.

President Obama, applying the same tactic, would be excoriated for instigating “class warfare.” It’s amazing, actually, to hear how closely some of Obama’s rhetoric mirrors the country’s most revered conservative. (You don’t have to believe me. You can find the clips on YouTube.)

My point is, the real Ronald Reagan is as far removed from the cherished fantasy of conservatives’ imaginations as he is from the psychology professor he played in “Bedtime for Bonzo.”

It’s with this in mind that I’ve read, with some amusement, recent letters and emails about my column in the Cape Gazette.

Some people seem to think I’m far left. One reader emailed that I was working “hand in hand” with President Obama to destroy America, which I took as something of a compliment.

Not that I’m trying to destroy America, you understand, but being grouped with the president of the United States, in whatever capacity, is pretty heady stuff for a small-town newspaper columnist.

I’ve also been told I’m too far to the right, which I’m guessing doesn’t represent the majority opinion.

Still others have said that I’m sensible and fair-minded. I tend to agree with these people, since they are obviously sensible and fair-minded.

Here’s the truth. I’m more of a staunch centrist and a bleeding-heart middle-of-the-roader.

I spent most of my adult life as a registered Republican, mostly because I worked for a small family business and I thought the GOP was more sympathetic to our concerns.

I no longer think that. Both Republicans and Democrats pay lip service to helping small businesses, but I think the former are in thrall to corporate cash and the latter to the heavy hitters of Wall Street. (I’m speaking of the national parties.)

When I moved down here full time in 2008, I registered as an independent, by which I mean “unaffiliated” and not a member of the Independent Party of Delaware.

Judging by the comments calling for the Cape Gazette to add a conservative columnist, I figure most people think I’ve drifted pretty far to the left. But I think it’s the country that has drifted to the right.

Let’s consider Delaware politics from roughly a generation ago. We had representing us in Congress two Republicans, Sen. Bill Roth and Rep. Mike Castle, and a Democrat, Sen. Joe Biden.

Roth was considered a conservative, Castle a moderate and Biden a liberal. I voted for all three, including Roth, who at the time was considered quite conservative.

(Newcomers to Delaware who are unfamiliar with Roth may be among those benefiting from his signature achievements, the Roth IRA and the Roth 401(k).)

Notice that I said “at the time.” During Roth’s five terms, his voting record regularly earned him a solid conservative rating.

How would that same record be judged today? That’s another story. While he might get points for being a fiscal conservative, Roth would have no place in today’s Republican Party.

He’d be drummed out faster than you can say “Brady Bill,” which he supported. Roth also voted to protect the environment.

In today’s politics that means he’d be “primaried” - and defeated - by a nonentity like Christine O’Donnell, whose qualifications couldn’t hold a candle to Roth’s.

Sadly, Roth’s problems with his party would likely go beyond a few votes considered beyond the pale. He also wouldn’t be nasty enough.

Wikipedia refers to Roth as a “witty man, but unnatural campaigner,” using his dog, a St. Bernard, to help ease his meetings with voters - a strategy likely linked to a certain shyness.

I can’t imagine Roth indulging in the childish venom so common in today’s politics. It would have been foreign to his nature. While in office, he worked hand-in-glove with the liberal Biden to serve Delaware. Such relationships, important to a state’s interests, have become more rare in the poisonous world of blood sport politics.

Instead, office-seekers compete not merely in how much they disagree with Obama’s policies - which is fine - but in how much contempt and personal animosity they display for the man himself. It’s a sorry spectacle.

Not that I mind the reader comments. As Dean Martin used to say, “Keep those cards and letters coming in.” Emails too.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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