“Michael Steele should be raising money, instead of hip-hop-itizing the platform,” former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell told the Harvard Republican Club at this year’s Lincoln Day Dinner. His words were well chosen for the audience. While many Harvard Republicans are confident in their beliefs, some are self-conscious about their affiliation. Skepticism of party dogma is an admirable trait, no doubt, but embarrassment over your party label is an unnecessary handicap.
These Republicans are sheepish because, like most students, they want to fit in. Imagine yourself, a Republican, at an Institute of Politics Director’s Dinner. Shirley Temple in hand, you prattle on with a state representative’s chief of staff. As he gushes about Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78, you realize—surprise, surprise—he’s a Democrat. Do you tell him you think Patrick’s speeches sound as corny as a 1950’s jingle? No, you just smile and nod—no reason to rock the boat, you think.
Unfortunately, some Republicans apologize for the few waves they make. In 1985, HRC president Mark Lagon chided the Crimson for portraying the club as a group of pro-life “extremists.” In 1995, HRC vice president Scott Tribble asserted, “We are not the stereotypical bad-guy Republicans who are rich and hate minorities and women.” And in 2000, HRC vice president Michael Housman agreed that the club had been uninviting to moderates since “[s]ome people would even wear coats and ties to meetings.”
Certainly, many Republicans are moderates, and their cautious rhetoric accurately describes their views. But conservatives incriminate themselves by acting like they’re guilty until proven innocent. First, blending in is unlikely on a campus where, according to a Crimson poll, 80 percent of students voted for Obama. Like it or not, Republicans always will be on the fringe. Second, apologizing for stereotypes aids the opposition because it implies that others’ misconceptions are well founded. It’s like answering the question, “When are you going to lose weight?” There’s no right answer.
Moreover, Harvard Democrats rarely apologize for their beliefs. For example, several Democrats are vehement supporters of gay marriage; a few even label their opponents “bigots.” But the Dems seldom reassure the Crimson that their club is “tolerant” or “inclusive” of social conservatives. Democrats aren’t embarrassed about their views; why are Republicans?
Most importantly, this embarrassment with the party alienates allies from other schools. Imagine you’re at a College Republicans’ summer conference in Washington, D.C. You’re chatting with students from more conservative campuses when one of them calls George W. Bush his hero. You cringe—you liked Bush, but not that much—and the others roll their eyes: They think you’re a New York Times-reading, sushi-eating liberal.
In fact, you’re a conservative; You even listen to Rush Limbaugh, not just read about him in Gail Collins’ columns. And you’re annoyed at these other students judging you. Many of them aren’t challenged as often or as aggressively as you are to defend the GOP. Who do they think they are?
This is the wrong way to think. Harvard Republicans should show more confidence against their opponents and more solidarity with their allies. Otherwise, they will fall prey to the strategy that the majority routinely employs against the minority: divide and conquer. When Republicans point fingers at each other, Democrats pick up the scraps.
Look at the history: In 1957, moderates split from the HRC to form the Eisenhower Club, which died soon thereafter. In 1995, centrists again jumped ship, forming the Republican Alliance, another short-lived group. To capitalize on the HRC’s bloodletting, the Democrats offered moderate Republicans free membership in their club. Today, the HRC is in fine form, with a comfortable mix of moderates and conservatives at the helm. Still, some Republicans get antsy when asked whether Limbaugh is the de facto head of the GOP.
There’s no need to apologize. And, before they abandon Limbaugh, Republicans should see how liberals are treating future New York Times columnist Ross G. Douthat ’02. The Salient editor emeritus is more measured in tone and more pragmatic in policy than Limbaugh, yet, when the Old Gray Lady announced his hiring, liberals pounced. A leftist think tank, the Center for American Progress, blasted Douthat in a newsletter, taking passages from his Crimson columns out of context and labeling his stances “hard-line.” As long as you have an R next to your name, some ideologues never will accept you.
So Harvard Republicans should revel in their distinction and enjoy the benefits of “tolerating” those conservative “extremists.” For instance, when Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the HRC ballooned to 290 members in the euphoria surrounding his election. How’s that for inclusive?
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.