Governor Ridge’s Republican Party is not the Republican Party of today

The former Pennsylvania governor harkened back to an earlier time, when ‘conservative’ meant something very different


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On Feb. 21, Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania, a former member of Congress and the first Homeland Security secretary in the George W. Bush administration, spoke at the most recent Politics ‘n Eggs event at Saint Anselm College.

What struck this observer was how his philosophy and vision for the Republican Party harkened back to an earlier time, when “conservative” meant something very different from today’s ideological assertions of many of the super PACs and the “tea party.”

Ridge’s talk hit several points about the United States’ place and role. First, the world has a high respect for the “idea of America,” as an open, democratic and generous “City on the Hill,” as Ronald Reagan termed it. This is notwithstanding the sometimes-mistaken forays and adventures we have undertaken overseas.

Ridge pointed out the efforts of various administrations to help others to fight malaria, AIDS, and those who are suffering real personal crises in the world. He reviewed this as a bipartisan effort and mentioned efforts of the first Bush administration, the Clinton administration, the second Bush administration and the Obama administration, each of which had causes to support and problems to solve that were not high on the radar screen of international diplomacy or military intervention.

Ridge stressed that the president is a “global leader,” and when people run for president, they should be tested on that basis.

He said that when we evaluate such candidates, we should take that into consideration, but we do not seem to do so, instead testing candidates on such minutiae as debate style, position on one social issue or another and ideological purity.

Reviewing our stature as the “arsenal of liberty,” Ridge indicated that we have a lot to contribute that we should evaluate.

First, we have the finest military in the world, but we certainly do not have to use it every time we are tempted to. That power is termed “hard power.”

Second, “soft power” is foreign aid, diplomacy and other efforts to help shape the world. Pointing out that foreign aid is only 1 percent of the federal budget, Ridge stressed that it is in our interest to spend the money over time in an effective way to indicate “who we are as a country.” Ridge speculated on how Afghanistan might have been different had we provided aid and assistance after the Russians withdrew rather than let the Taliban take over, only to have us intervene militarily after 9/11.

Ridge urged people to test candidates on where they stand on such “soft power.”

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Interestingly, in answer to the one political question –Ridge having indicated that he was a supporter of John McCain and later Jon Huntsman in New Hampshire primaries – he dodged the question on who the Republican candidate should be and how to get that candidate nominated and elected, turning his attention instead to what we should look for in a candidate and a party.

He indicated that Republicans should have a philosophy about issues like abortion, gay marriage and the like, but should leave that to the individual opinion and not make it the forefront of political or governmental efforts. Rather, he indicated that the Republican Party, as the “conservative party,” should provide reasonable alternatives to big government policies, protect individual liberty and freedom, balance the budget, assure a strong military, and stick to traditional conservative values.

Listening to Ridge, this observer, having reached my mid-60s, harkened back to the transformative book written by Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s, “The Conscience of a Conservative.”

In that book, Goldwater, setting the stage for the conservative resurgence that resulted in his nomination in 1964 and probably and ultimately Reagan’s election in 1980, urged Republicans and Americans to value libertarianism in the sense that the government should not get involved in their lives or tell people how to live, but should be strong fiscally, militarily and philosophically. Government should do only what is necessary and not always what is desirable, if freedom is to be maximized, Goldwater wrote.

Ridge sounded like Goldwater. Present-day “conservatives” do not. Ridge indicated that if the Republican Party were to restore that kind of outlook, it would have a good chance to elect presidents and lead the country. Otherwise, he did not think it was too important who the individual candidates would be, as they would be rejected.

Listening to Tom Ridge, important messages were delivered, and an interesting and strong leader was visible.

Good things for Republicans to think about. Rereading “The Conscience of a Conservative” is not a bad idea.

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.

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