David Hanlin: Playing to the (ever smaller) crowd

September 05, 2012|By DAVID HANLIN

Growing up in New York state, I was raised a Democrat. I don’t remember there being any discussion in our family as to why. Democrats controlled most elected offices and had held them for years. That is just the way it was.

As a young Democratic adult, I had the good fortune of having a short stint on Capitol Hill and subsequently worked as an aide for a congressional campaign. After leaving the world of elected politics and furthering my education, I returned to New York. I became employed in a highly regulated industry. Among my job duties was serving as liaison to state government.

Soon thereafter, my blind loyalty to the Democratic Party began to be challenged. I started to see the consequences of New York being a highly taxed state. Employers were beginning to leave the state and were taking jobs with them. Property values of homes, historically the primary source of most people’s wealth, were just beginning to collapse.

My disgruntlement continued to grow. The final straw was reached during a private conversation with a state regulator about an innovative service my employer was providing. The regulator didn’t like it. He demanded that we discontinue the service. I pointed out to him that this innovation was not governed by regulation. He acknowledged that this was likely the conclusion that a court would make.

He then made a point of highlighting the cost and time involved with litigation needed to prove the state wrong. He reminded me that he would still be around if ever we needed approval on a regulated measure. The implication was obvious. I was quietly outraged. This abuse of regulatory authority was part of a system that had been created by and maintained by my party.

When I moved to Maryland nearly 25 years ago, I registered as a Republican. I was drawn to the party’s professed ideals of equal rights, equal justice and opportunity for all, encouragement of individual initiative, fiscal responsibility, and advocacy for government closest to the people.

Even 25 years ago the Democratic Party was the majority party. However, it had a strong conservative wing that applied some restraint to the way the party governed. That conservative voice of restraint is gone. Now, the dominant perspective of the majority party seems to be that all problems have to be resolved by government action.

Statewide, my party has its own issues. Statewide, our minority party has not been an effective conservative voice in public debate. Some of our politicians seem content to cater to their own base of political support, rather than expand the party’s political base statewide. However, expanding our base of support is exactly what we must do. But our obsession with a narrow range of issues is not going to help us do that. We need to revisit “equal rights, equal justice and opportunity, encouragement of individual initiative, fiscal responsibility, and government closest to the people.” I haven’t heard those words come from my party in a long time.

Gov. Bob Ehrlich said, “Elections are important.” We cannot be content “sending a message” with a smattering of local election victories. To paraphrase a Democratic leader speaking about Republican politicians, “they don’t even know where the meeting room is, let alone have a seat at the table.” We need to earn that place at the table.

When a conservative perspective is at the table, the diversity of views will lead to better, more balanced decisions. Everyone will benefit from such a system, but we need to win elections in other parts of the state to earn that place. To win elections we need to be viewed as a serious, non-threatening voice of restraint. 

There are thousands of Marylanders who are concerned about the growth of state government, but they steer clear of Republicans because they are turned off by some extreme positions. The likes of Todd Akin of Missouri, arguing that there is such a thing as “legitimate rape” or Tom Head of Texas, warning of a likely invasion by United Nations troops, make us look foolish and reaffirm a negative perception of the party to the vast and growing number of unaffiliated independent people. These are the very people that we need to win over in order to earn legitimacy and a place at the table.

I was encouraged that one of the underlying themes emerging from this year’s Republican National Convention seemed to be a willingness to expand the range of acceptable positions within the party. Moving beyond our existing base will require a willingness to accept differing opinions and avoidance of any kind of “litmus test of purity” based upon a handful of Republican leaders’ limited views on family values, gun rights and blind pledges to cut taxes. To do otherwise would be a disservice to everyone.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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