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In politics, it's smart to welcome converts
Jun 9, 2014 - By Mark Shields
Long before he teamed with Erskine Bowles, a Democrat and former President Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, to lead the bipartisan commission on reducing the federal deficit, Republican Alan Simpson of Wyoming had served in the U.S. Senate for 18 years.
Simpson, who served 10 years as Senate Republican whip, the No. 2 leadership post, was fond of saying: "We have two political parties, the Stupid Party and the Evil Party. I belong to the Stupid Party."
Given the recent actions of Republicans in Washington, it's hard to argue with Simpson's harsh assessment of the current GOP's IQ deficit.
Look no further than the last presidential election, when among voters under the age of 50, President Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney by 15 percent, which qualifies as a landslide. Romney did win a majority (52 percent) of voters aged 50-64.
Now think about this, because the Republican leadership obviously is not: If you were 50 years old in 2012, that means the first time you voted in a presidential election was probably either 1980 or 1984 when the Republican nominee was Ronald Reagan.
In 1980, Reagan split the youth vote (under 30) with Democrat Jimmy Carter. But by 1984, Reagan managed to win 60 percent support among voters ages 18-29.
It is axiomatic in American politics that our future voting patterns and party loyalty are formed by our first presidential choices.
The "children" of the Reagan era turned out to be the "youngest" age cohort in 2012 to support the Republican ticket. With this fresh evidence of the long-term influence of one's first presidential choices, how could national Republicans, by showing intolerance and narrow-mindedness on issues like same-sex marriage and immigration, continue to go out of their way to alienate today's youngest voters?
Between the second term of Clinton and the second term of Obama, according to the Gallup poll, support for legalizing same-sex marriage doubled among all American voters from 27 percent to 53 percent in favor.
During that same period, Republican support for same-sex marriage increased from 16 percent to just 26 percent. This is when more than 70 percent of voters under the age of 30 approve of what they see as marriage equality.
Attitudes and values do change. Just a half century ago, only 4 percent of Americans believed marriage between blacks and whites should be legal. Today, close to 90 percent of Americans don't object to interracial marriage.
This is not to suggest that Republicans abandon their personal convictions on this or any issue, but instead that they show an openness, not just to stomach but to welcome those who don't completely agree with their version of the party line.
Haley Barbour, who before he was Republican national chairman or governor of Mississippi was the political director in Reagan's White House, likes to remind audiences of The Gipper's rule:
"Remember a fellow who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is your friend and all ally. He's not a 20 percent traitor."
Liberal Democrats, who themselves too often are intolerant and dismissive of loyal party members who disagree with them on abortion or other single isues, would be wise to heed the advice of Reagan who, you might recall, won 44 states the first presidential election and 49 the second.
Once again we learn that a truly vibrant movement -- political, social or religious -- does not search out heretics; it is instead seeking and welcoming converts.
Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.