- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

What was once derisively referred to as a “race to the bottom” — as in how low can you go in American politics to deintellectualize the debate and appeal to the lowest common denominator — might now be called “The Great Pander.” Republicans would be wise to avoid this political minefield.

This politics of pandering can be seen in all aspects of American politics, especially now that the GOP has fielded a team of consultants, practitioners and candidates skilled in the modern art of “message” but less learned in the basics of ideology and principles. This disturbing trend was plainly visible in the reaction of some in the Republican Party last spring when gas prices spiked, and their first instinct was to attack the oil industry, not the government that has caused the shortages… and offer a silly gas rebate, but not a cut in all gas taxes. Of course, even an economic novice could surmise high gasoline costs are due to supply and demand issues caused by government interference and regulations.

For the last year, Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has traversed the country on a noble but deeply flawed quest. Mr. Mehlman has appeared before black audiences, apologizing for the supposed past offenses committed by Republicans against black Americans. His performances have been great sport for the left: What self-respecting liberal doesn’t love to see a Republican, especially a prized catch like Mr. Mehlman, prostrate himself before Democratic audiences?

Mr. Mehlman should study history more closely. It was the Republican Party whose enduring principles extended freedom for all, including blacks. It was the Republican Party that passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution — freeing the slaves, establishing equal protection under the law, and giving black males the right to vote. It was the Republican Party that supported the first party platform planks denouncing lynching, and it was the Republican Party that passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Democrats opposed all these initiatives and embraced the ugly politics of the Ku Klux Klan right through the 1960s. West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, a former officer of the Ku Klux Klan, unashamedly maintains his lofty position in the Senate. Democrats see no conflict. And one of their icons, Woodrow Wilson, introduced racial segregation in government offices. Previously, there was no federal bar to blacks and whites using the same public facilities. The Democratic president was also a huge fan of the racist film “Birth of a Nation.” Where’s the outrage now? Where is their apology? Democrats have never apologized for these awful transgressions, nor are they likely to do so in the future.

Throughout history, the GOP failed politically when it tried to outpander the Democrats. The Republican Party tried to compete with the Democrats in pandering for the black vote and ended up humiliated. Republicans are lucky when they get 10 percent of the black vote.

The GOP also made itself look silly when it tried to be more “touchy feely” than the Democrats when it came to the women’s vote. Women’s suffrage was a Republican initiative and Republicans have led the way in appointing some of our nation’s most talented women to positions of power. No good deed goes unpunished. Eleanor Roosevelt strongly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, Republicans have pandered to women for votes, and still a pro-Democratic gender gap remains.

Yet after September 11, 2001, George Bush and the Republicans looked strong and decisive, contrasting well with the irritable Democrats. Women responded to that leadership by giving the GOP their vote. Once again, strong leadership — not political pandering — was rewarded at the ballot box.

But Republicans are slow learners. Has it occurred to anyone that Hispanics, like all people, like strength, leadership and decisivenes? And the way to get their votes is to be strong on immigration policy and stop competing with Democrats.

But the Republican governor of Maryland, Robert Ehrlich, may recently have taken away the 2006 equivalent of the Academy Award of pandering. Caving into the demands of a few vocal homosexual activists, Mr. Ehrlich fired a Metro Board member for making supposedly insensitive comments.

Several weeks ago, a member of the Metro Board, Robert J. Smith, appeared on an obscure local public affairs show. Discussing the issue of same-sex “marriage,” he made clear his opposition attempts to redefine marriage. In elaborating on his position, he said he, as a Catholic, thought homosexuality was “deviant” behavior.

The manufactured outrage by the homosexual community and its enablers was quick and Mr. Ehrlich was decisive. Confronted with the choice of supporting the First Amendment or pandering to those intolerant forces defending deviance, Mr. Ehrlich unerringly took the coward’s way out. But this action was only a foreshadowing of more to come from this tower of Jello.

Since then, Mr. Ehrlich appointed Christopher Panos, an openly homosexual judge, to fill a Baltimore District Court vacancy. Judge Panos will undoubtedly rule on a wide range of marriage and adoption issues, and therefore his positions on these important social issues matter. The same cannot be said of Mr. Smith’s views on same-sex “marriage” and his ability to make the trains run on time. Such are the logical inconsistencies of the prophets of pandering who run Annapolis.

More recently, Mr. Ehrlich announced as his choice for lieutenant governor, a young blind woman of no political and little governmental experience. Mr. Ehrlich met her while in the U.S. Congress when she was a lobbyist for funding programs for the blind. After Mr. Ehrlich was elected governor, he created and naturally appointed her to the new Cabinet-level Department of the Handicapped. One can imagine the shallow suits and skirts advising Mr. Ehrlich, yet lamenting that she was only a “twofer.” Just think if she had also been a racial minority.

Mr. Ehrlich’s move was elegantly cynical, a monument to the pander politics of the 21st century. Surely it will be studied and applauded in future campaign management schools as a perfect example of the opposite of leadership.

The interest groups that have come to dominate American politics are defined by their weakness and what, not who they are. They have become their grievances. So too now should the voiceless conservatives who make up the strength and the vigor of the flaccid and limp leadership of Republican Party.

A recent AP-Ipsos survey found that 24 percent of self-described conservatives intend on voting Democratic in their congressional race. This is not surprising. Pandering lacks all nobility, and history has proven that it has failed to pay political dividends for Republicans. People yearn for true leadership, not lightweights who pawn the empty rhetoric devised by unprincipled professional consultants. One should expect this stooping and groveling from the party of government, but not from Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party.

Craig Shirley is president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and author of the critically acclaimed book about the 1976 presidential campaign, “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All.” He is writing “Rendezvous with Destiny,” a book about the 1980 campaign.

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