Folding the big tent

Back when candidate Barack Obama was competing in the Iowa caucuses, he’d get a laugh when he spoke about Republicans “sneaking in” to his campaign rallies. They’d pull him aside, he said, to whisper furtively: “Barack, I’m a Republican — but I support you.” To which Obama would reply, in a similarly low voice: “Thank you. [Pause.] But why are we whispering?”

Obama called for a “new politics,” one dedicated to erasing some of the partisan and ideological divisions that have kept the parties attacking each other instead of tackling the nation’s big challenges. Obama thought Republicans shouldn’t be embarrassed to say they’re supporting a Democrat. They should be proud to join a political movement that valued progress over party purity.

The Republican Party elite has a different point of view.

When centrist Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) announced he was leaving the GOP to become a Democrat, Republican leaders were understandably disappointed. The loss of his vote on party-line measures meant Senate Republicans would be too few to wield the powerful weapon of a filibuster.

But the intensity of the GOP’s response was noteworthy.

Former Rep. Pat Toomey, who was plotting to dislodge Specter in the Pennsylvania Republican primary, told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that the party switch was “a very serious act of betrayal.” The conservative Toomey uses that word liberally. In March, he called Specter’s support for the president’s economic recovery package “a profound betrayal.” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele likened Specter’s departure to treason, comparing him to Benedict Arnold. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, one-upping Steele, expressed solidarity with those who wouldn’t miss Specter at all, and who’d tell him to “take [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] and his daughter with you.”

But Republican leaders’ scorn hasn’t been reserved for Specter. Dick Cheney was asked whether Limbaugh or former Secretary of State Colin Powell was a better ideological influence on the GOP. “Well, if I had to choose in terms of being a Republican, I’d go with Rush Limbaugh,” Cheney replied.

And when McCain press secretary Brian Rogers said last week he was leaving to work for Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, fellow McCain aide Michael Goldfarb declared, “Everybody knew Rogers was a tree-hugger, but I didn’t think he’d take it this far. He’s dead to me.”

That giant swishing sound you’re hearing is the GOP’s “big tent” being folded up and packed away.

For the GOP moderates who remain, the right wing’s purge is no doubt distressing. But for Americans desperate to replace the bitter partisanship of the past with genuine cooperation in the nation’s capital, it’s an even more troubling sign: The loudest voices in today’s GOP view President Obama’s call for common purpose as sacrilege.

But Obama’s “new politics” push may be bearing fruit.

This week, the president met with leaders of disparate groups to unveil an agreement to control healthcare costs. Representatives from the Democratic-leaning healthcare workers union — a longtime champion for sweeping reform — stood alongside executives from the Republican-leaning drug and insurance industry that killed healthcare legislation in the 1990s. Together, they pledged to take steps to reduce costs by $2 trillion over the next 10 years.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. House passed a credit card reform measure that protects consumers from hidden fees and unfair rate hikes. In a lopsided vote, 105 Republicans bucked their party leaders and joined Democrats to advance the legislation.

And while GOP support for the president’s economic program may be unforgivable to the party’s right wing, more and more industry leaders are joining groups like Business Forward to back the administration’s agenda.

Obama’s commitment to results appears to resonate more strongly than the GOP’s quest for unblemished party loyalty. A Gallup poll released this week showed Obama’s approval rating at 66 percent among independents — a seven-point increase from mid-March. In a Quinnipiac poll released at the end of April, just 24 percent of independents approved of the job congressional Republicans were doing.

For moderates like Specter, Powell and Rogers, sneaking out of the Republican Party’s folding tent will be met by angry cries from the GOP’s conservative elite. But to the majority of Americans who feel more comfortable in the middle, a few whispered words will be heard loud and clear.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.