Between the Lines: Republicans on the political extreme

As a rookie reporter in 1974, one of the first stories I covered was the Eastern Wilderness Act. To get some details on the new law, I called the office of Vermont Republican Sen. George Aiken.
I was expecting to get a junior aide on the phone. Instead, the receptionist asked, “Would you like to speak to the senator? He’s right here.”
What strikes me most about that conversation now — aside from the fact that Aiken would take the time to talk to a 22-year-old cub reporter — was that he was one of many Republican senators who enthusiastically supported protection of wilderness areas against development.
Today in the GOP, by comparison, the default position among presidential candidates is virulently anti-environment. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul support abolishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Before she dropped out of the race, Rep. Michele Bachmann called the EPA the “job killing agency of America.”
And it’s not just on the environment that they are extremists.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum opposes birth control in the belief it promotes immoral behavior.
Ron Paul thinks we should legalize heroin. He worries that the proposed fence on the Mexican border may in fact be a government plot to keep Americans locked in the U.S.
What on earth has happened to the Republican Party?
It’s true that for us political junkies, the Republican presidential race has been enormously absorbing.
It is thrilling, for example, to watch Santorum tear Mitt Romney a new one on healthcare reform. And Gingrich is always entertaining — whether he’s expressing mock horror that a journalist would mention his serial infidelities as a political liability, or he’s promising a lunar colony on the moon by the end of his second presidential term.
If at least 13,000 people lived in the moon colony, Gingrich pledged, the residents could apply for statehood. (I am not making this up.)
As fun as all this is to watch, however, the extremism of the candidates’ positions is troubling not just to Democrats, but to the kind of moderate Republicans who predominate in Vermont. It’s telling that our last congressional Republican, Sen. Jim Jeffords, eventually started caucusing with the Democrats.
Many of us wonder what it says about America today, that the top GOP candidates are taking positions on the political fringes.
All the candidates worry about Obama’s purported “socialism.” Socialism, as in healthcare reform that harkens back to President Nixon’s proposals.
The bogeyman of socialism doesn’t scare us up here in Vermont, of course. We’ve seen an alleged socialist in the form of Sen. Bernie Sanders. We like Bernie.
The Republican hopefuls take special delight in demonizing the opposition. Says Gingrich: “The left-wing Democrats will represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness, and the total right to cripple innocent people in the name of letting hooligans loose.”
Gingrich even portrays Obama as a “food stamp president.”
That’s racist code. More than just a dog whistle, it fairly screams out the view that a black president would, of course, be in favor of letting lazy people live off food stamps and welfare.
Mitt Romney says he believes “corporations are people.” Which I guess is how you think when your net worth gets to be more than $200 million.
To my mind, though, the most unfortunate quote to escape Romney’s mouth was about the poor.
Candidates have been paying little more than lip service to the plight of the poor in recent decades. But at least they have usually pretended to care. Romney, though, dispensed with the niceties.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he said. “We have a safety net there.”
Beyond his callous unconcern for those who live in poverty, the worst part about this perspective is his belief that there is still an effective safety net in existence. State and federal governments have spent many years cutting back aid for the poor. Just try living on food stamps and see what it’s like to live within the “safety net.”
What about global warming, which the 2008 Republican nominee Sen. John McCain acknowledged was a legitimate concern?
Rep. Ron Paul decries “bogus claims about climate dangers” and says they “should not be used as a justification to further limit the American people’s freedom.”
Santorum, who is now virtually tied with Romney in some polls, calls global warming a “hoax” and “patently absurd.”
His 2006 book asserts that “radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness.” (For the record, Santorum now says he’s not familiar with the quote, and that his wife wrote that section of the book. I’m reminded of Charles Barkley’s assertion that he was misquoted in his autobiography.)
Santorum has memorably compared homosexuality to polygamy, adultery, incest and bestiality. He has pledged as president to bomb Iran.
Nonetheless, pollsters say the presidential race is too close to call. One of these GOP candidates has a good chance of becoming president.
It seems there’s no room for moderates in the national Republican Party.
Dominated by anti-abortion activists, evangelicals and Tea Partiers who believe government is the enemy, the party is out there on the edges — thinking small and mean at time when the nation desperately leads its leaders to think big and inclusive.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at http://gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him at [email protected].

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