Michael Smerconish: A view from the right, the right way

November 10, 2013 

There's a move among some of the adults remaining in the GOP to lead the party on a path that regains its footing. Take Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has been running a campaign commercial touting his record of "compromise," a dirty word in Washington. Or Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who, while running for re-election, has been speaking out against those who keep "voting scorecards" and who recently proclaimed on the stump, "I'm not in the shut-down-the-government crowd." Even Ohio Gov. John Kasich recently voiced concern with what he sees as "a war on the poor."

But the Republican leader who has offered the most comprehensive and cogent case for the party's future is former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who did so in a recent address to an LGBT group in Washington. (Read it at logcabin.org.)

Ridge told a Washington gathering of Log Cabin Republicans on Oct. 23 that he sees the GOP of the 21st century as "a nonjudgmental conservative party -- a winning party," and then (like Alexander), Ridge took aim at litmus tests.

"Two Republican presidents changed my life in a very personal and meaningful way," Ridge said. "One called on me to serve my country in Vietnam. The other asked me to serve my country after the attacks of 9/11. Neither president asked me my position on social issues."

Ridge applauded the way in which Ronald Reagan confronted liberals. ("See, he was respectful. He was civil. He was positive. He challenged; he didn't condemn.") And Ridge highlighted how a shrinking base has allowed the likes of Sens. Alexander, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Orrin Hatch, John McCain and Lindsey Graham to have their conservatism questioned.

"For many observers, the GOP has become intolerant, judgmental, and self-righteous -- perhaps worthy of attitudes of the Pilgrims in 1620, but hardly attractive qualities for a political party nearly 400 years later," Ridge said. "Sadly, there is very little room or respect for differences of opinion on social issues."

Strong words from a man who has run eight campaigns as a Republican. But he's uniquely qualified to offer that view. Remember, McCain favored Ridge or Joe Lieberman as his vice presidential pick in 2008, avoiding the former because he is pro-choice.

In setting forth his opposition to Obamacare, Ridge gave a tutorial on how to advocate while seeking to expand the tent. He described the law as flawed and worthy of repeal, "blatantly infringing on the religious liberties of Catholic and other religious health-care facilities." But, he added, in demanding respect for individual rights, Republicans must "respect the rights of others to live and let live."

"If we want a government that acknowledges our God-given right to freely choose how we live -- in regard to marriage and other issues -- we must demand a government that respects the rights of others to choose and follow their conscience just the same," he said.

Instead of George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism, this was Tom Ridge's conservative tolerance. And perhaps the paragraph with his keenest insight was this:

"In order to govern, we must win national elections. To do so, the narcissists and ideologues within our party need to understand that Americans are more conservative than liberal, but are more practical than ideological, and more tolerant and open-minded than judgmental. They are also looking for real, not rhetorical, solutions."

Two days after Ridge said those words, I read them aloud to yet another Republican leader who seems out of step with the Ted Cruz-ification of the party, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. The former ambassador to China said of Ridge:

"I know his heart and soul, and he's probably one of the greatest public servants this country has produced in a long time. What he described in that paragraph, every American ought to read that, because that, I think, is a completely apt description of who we are, our heart and soul, what makes us unique as Americans and what in short is going to make the Republican Party successful if we ever want to win a national election again."

Finally, Ridge, like Christie, dared use the C word, "compromise," in referencing "when our founders drafted the most significant political compromises of self-government known to mankind -- the Constitution of the United States."

A few days after the speech, I sought confirmation from Ridge that this was no ordinary speech. He obliged.

"When their leadership invited me to attend their fund-raiser, I said I'll do this on one condition," he told me. "I'm coming there not to talk to you as a gay and lesbian audience; I'm coming there to talk to you about the Republican Party. You are Republicans who happen to be gay and lesbian, but I want to talk about the bigger issue, and that's the direction of the party and the kind of party that I think we need to build to win elections, national elections, in the 21st century. If you're willing to accept that condition, then I'm going to sit down and write a speech specifically for that goal, and they accepted that condition, and I delivered the speech."

He added: "I kind of got it off my chest, to be frank with you."

All Americans should read the speech. It'll have them Googling Ridge's age -- 68 -- with an eye toward 2016, even though he is emphatic he had no such motivation in speaking his mind.

Michael Smerconish, Philadelphia Inquirer; www.smerconish.com.

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