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Republican reboot

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Brilliantly depicted by Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg's new film, Abraham Lincoln was a wise visionary, a man of character, strength and humour, who dedicated himself to abolishing slavery and preserving the union of the United States.

He was also a Republican. That's right: Lincoln and Mitt Romney belonged to the same political party. Moreover, if Honest Abe had voted in the recent election, there is no doubt he would have deserted his own party and cast his ballot for Barack Obama and the Democrats, the party that most resembled his own thinking -- though his had a 19th-century slant.

Moviegoers not up on their American history will be forgiven for thinking Lincoln, a compassionate human-rights champion and an advocate of strong government action, was a Democrat. How could such a leader who fought for social justice and literally risked his life to defend the rights of enslaved Africans belong to the political party whose most recent presidential nominee insisted 47 per cent of Americans (who happen to vote for the other party) are entitled slackers who are dependent upon government handouts? (Not to mention other members of this same party who believe there is such a thing as "legitimate rape" and argue being gay is form of "bondage.")

Somewhere along the line, the Republicans lost their way. If Romney could not beat a president when unemployment was close to a high of eight per cent, then when? The last time an incumbent president was re-elected when the unemployment rate was greater than 7.2 per cent was Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.

Since the election of 1952, the Republicans have held the presidency for 36 of 60 years or 60 per cent of the time. The party does still hold power in the influential House of Representatives. Yet, Mitt Romney's loss to Barack Obama points to a number of significant factors that might well prevent the Republicans from claiming the White House for a very long time.

If you watched Republican gatherings during the last election or saw Romney's late-night concession speech, then you should have noticed he was speaking to a room that consisted almost entirely of white faces. Obama's Democrat demographic was decidedly more mixed; the Democrats rode to victory, especially in the key swing states of Colorado, Ohio and Florida, largely because of the support of Hispanics, Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities, along with a sufficient number of white voters, mainly women, who cannot accept the Republican party's ultra-conservative slant (despite Romney's Herculean attempt to keep that in check during the campaign).

The votes supporting gay marriage in Maine and Maryland (now making it nine states in all), the refusal in Minnesota to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, and the fairly remarkable vote in favour of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Washington and Oregon signifies yet again that the so-called progressives are winning the fight over traditionalists in the battle to define the values of the modern western world.

A long time ago, the Republicans were, in fact, established on a point of principle and as a symbol of progress. The party was born in 1854 as a response to slavery and supported, ironically enough, the federal government's right to contain its spread over the objection of the states. Lincoln, an Illinois politician who had belonged to the old Whig party, was one of its founders. Even more ironically, given current Republicans' conservative stand on maintaining restrictive immigration laws, the mid-19th-century Republicans opposed the Tea Party-like Know-Nothing Party, which feared America would be overrun by Catholics and immigrants.

Opposing them were northern Democrats such as Stephen Douglas, the party's nominee in 1860, who lost to Lincoln and who argued for a policy of popular sovereignty by which a territory or state's population could decide for or against slavery.

After the civil war, the Republican party was the most successful political party in the U.S., the party African-Americans voted for, and became fondly known as the Grand Old Party or GOP. As the U.S. industrialized, however, the Republicans also morphed into the party of the wealthy, even if most of their supporters were not. William McKinley, who got America involved in the Spanish-American War in 1898, was a typical leader of that era. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he was succeeded by Teddy Roosevelt, a progressive reformer, who moved the party back to the centre.

During the 1920s, the party preached high tariffs. It enjoyed continued success (and was the party of choice for women, who finally got the vote in 1920) under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and even the much-maligned Herbert Hoover, whose enormous popularity was destroyed by the Depression and, along with it, Republican fortunes until 1953.

In the '50s, the Republicans replaced the Democrats in the south, but lost their way for much of the '60s. The party was rejuvenated first by Richard Nixon, who moved it again to the centre, and then even more convincingly by Ronald Reagan, who shifted it right again in the '80s.

It is not surprising that it was Reagan's legacy that Romney touted at every opportunity during the election. The former B-movie actor-turned-politician stood for less government, lower taxes and greater trust in business. This was followed by the rise of the Christian right within the party, a move further right on social issues and ultimately the fusing of this ideology with Reagan economics in the Tea Party movement.

Writing two weeks ago in the New York Times, the columnist Ross Douthat conceded the conservatives who dominate the Republican party "must face reality: The age of Reagan is officially over, and the Obama majority is the only majority we have."

Inflexibility for a political party can be a death knell. If the Republicans want to study a model that works, they need only examine the history of Canada's own Conservative party.

At various times Canada's Conservatives also went through demanding transformations -- from the John A. Macdonald Tories to Progressive Conservative after 1942, and then back to Conservative under Stephen Harper -- in finding leaders and policies that attract wide support.

Avoiding extremism, especially on social issues, and embracing diversity might be a start. But given how ingrained these views are among the current crop of Republicans, who hold unfettered capitalism as sacrosanct, this probably will not happen any time soon. The Democrats can only smile at that thought.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context. His most recent book, King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny is now available in paperback.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2012 A7

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