Mel Martinez

A lot of people are sad today because of the announcement that Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) will not stand for reelection. I am one of them.

He said that he wanted to spend more time with his family, and while that might be a familiar excuse for folks leaving a job, when it comes to Martinez, I believe him. He really did want to see his young son play basketball more often, and the Senate life was not particularly conducive to that prospect.

Mel Martinez is a thoroughly decent, smart, principled patriot who loves this country and who has always acted with the noblest motivations.

Mel’s tenure in the Congress was not smooth by any stretch.

In a cruel baptism of the vagaries of the Byzantine world that is the Senate, he got sucked into a controversy on Terri Schiavo. Mel’s involvement in that episode was always motivated by a genuine desire to protect an innocent life, but that was not how it was portrayed in the media.

President Bush asked him to serve as a general chairman of the Republican National Committee, and then did little to help him once he was there. He rightly gave it the old college try, and then left the job to focus on being a senator for Florida when it became clear that his advice would not be followed by the White House.

Probably his most searing experience was his efforts to bring some more rationality to our immigration laws.

He wanted comprehensive immigration reform, because he loves America and he believes that talented people should be allowed to come here to achieve the American Dream. He is not the kind of person to pull up the ladder after he arrived at the top of the mountain. In other words, he is not a hypocrite.

But that position was not a popular one with too much of the Republican base. Spurred on by the talk show punditocracy, the worst elements of our base turned on Mel, called him vile names and rejected his approach to common-sense reform.

Mel endured it all with a stiff upper lip and a ready smile. But it must have stung, and I imagine that Mel’s decision today was made easier by his memories of those experiences.

Republicans like to talk about a big tent, but we can’t just talk about it. We have to believe it in our hearts. We have to understand that a political party is not a country club. We don’t invite the “right” people to become members of a nice little debating society, and disinvite the “wrong” people who might disagree with us on an issue or two. But I think, for too many voters out there, that is exactly what we do.

The Republicans have to have big enough ideas about our nation’s future that those ideas attract all kinds of people, from all walks of life, from all races, all sexes, all nationalities, all classes and all regions of the country. A big tent is not really the imagery I am looking for. I am looking for the big ideas that unite the country.

Those ideas have to be big enough to not only attract guys like Mel Martinez, but to keep them attracted so that they stay and fight and keep fighting to make America great.

I am certain that Mel Martinez will continue to insist that he is leaving the Senate because he wants to stay closer to home to be with his family, and I believe him. But I also believe that the Republican Party needs leaders like Mel Martinez if it ever wants to be in the majority again, and that means coming up with the big ideas that make guys like Mel excited enough to stay and fight for America.

We aren’t that party right now, and that is why we are losing a good man like Mel Martinez.


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