If there was to be an alternative title to Dickinson College’s featured panel “Republican Politics Today,” it would be “how do Republicans define what Republicanism is?”
How well that question was answered is, of course, a matter of opinion.
The panel of four current and former GOP leaders took place Thursday at Dickinson’s Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium, moderated by Dickinson political science professor David O’Connell.
“Tonight, I’d like our panelists to help us understand what the Republican Party stands for today,” O’Connell said at the outset.
He presented the panel with statements from a platform card handed out at the 2004 Republican National Convention — one of O’Connell’s many pieces of campaign memorabilia — and asked them if those principles still existed in the GOP, and in what capacity.
Several of the exchanges this prompted indicated that the panelists saw their party as a group of philosophical concepts that may not — and should not be expected to — manifest themselves in coherent policy, or even manifest a clear definition of right vs. wrong.
“The premises of your question might be in error,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, who represented Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District in the Philadelphia area from 2003 to 2015. “The Republican Party is not a monolithic entity that has 67 million registered voters and it all thinks, speaks, and acts as one entity, and therefore whatever happened on a particular policy issue, that the Republican Party did or didn’t do the right thing.”
Gerlach was responding to O’Connell’s reading of the 2004 platform item that stated Republicans believe “the best government is that which governs least.”
O’Connell said this philosophy does not always translate into policy — at the time the platform was written, George W. Bush was pushing both the largest public entitlement program in a generation — Medicare Part D — as well as greatly expanding federal control over states’ educational curricula via the No Child Left Behind Act.
“That’s a very unclear answer because both parties are dealing with very polarized bases,” Gerlach said. “At the end of the day, our politics are reflective of our people. ... It’s not going to end up at the end of any quarter or any year with the Republican Party doing this vs. that, it’s just not that simple.”
“What the party stands for is an emergent phenomenon, there’s no single person or single group of people that can control what the outcome is,” said Robert Borden, a 1991 graduate of Dickinson College and a long-time GOP staffer on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Borden said the traditional GOP coalition from his younger years — religious conservatives, security hawks and pro-business interests — has become less clear in the age of Trump.
“We have a new coalition, and we don’t even have the right terms for it yet,” Borden said. “We almost have derogatory terms for each other inside that coalition now.”
So if the GOP is not defined by the collective consensus, or lack thereof, of its elected officials, what defines it?
And if the Republican Party is unable to translate its philosophy into functional governance, such as the recent implosion on an Affordable Care Act replacement and continuing lack of an infrastructure deal, then “why should the voters who agree with the principles on this card continue to give their vote to the GOP?” O’Connell asked.
A number of potentially contradictory answers emerged, especially when O’Connell presented the panelists with statistics on what the party’s voter base believes.
According to a 2016 Pew Research study, 54 percent of self-described conservative Republicans believe that climate research is based on scientists’ own political opinions, with only 9 percent believing it to be based on the best available evidence.
A similar poll in 2013 found that only 43 percent of conservative Republicans believe in human evolution.
“I think that’s a bunch of horse hockey,” Gerlach said. “I’d like to see what the 2016 Republican platform is on climate change. I don’t know what it is, I know I didn’t read it, I didn’t read the platform at all last year.”
Gerlach again attacked O’Connell’s premise that the party could be defined by what it’s electorate believes. He used air-quotes around “Republican Party” when addressing O’Connell.
“If you’re going to say ‘Republican Party,’ the only distillation of what the party believes would be from those elected delegates that came together for the Cleveland convention, and what did they write down about what they thought about that issue,” Gerlach said. “That’s what I’d like to know if you’re going to use the question ‘what does the “Republican Party” believe,’ and then be able to respond to that, rather than the polling you cited.”
Renee Amoore, who in 2004 became the first woman and African-American to head Pennsylvania’s RNC delegation, said voter beliefs did not reflect her experience.
“As a delegate, we were very much, as far as climate control [sic] and all that other kind of stuff, so I don’t know where that came from, but we were very much involved,” Amoore said, asserting that “people make up stuff” about the Republican Party.
“I’m not trying to make stuff up. ... I’m noticing a trend in public opinion that is worth exploring,” O’Connell said.
At other points, Gerlach, who consumed the bulk of the panel time Thursday night, extolled past actions by the party but did not press into whether they were still relevant.
“Every single year we voted to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health, for example, because we realized how important it was to increase the amount of money going to researchers on a wide variety of issues. ... I guess I disagree with your premise that Republicans don’t care about science,” Gerlach said.
O’Connell reminded the panel that he had never asserted that the GOP doesn’t care about science, but rather asked if it did, or could, given the apparent gulf in opinion between its leadership and its electorate.
When it came to the issue of science-based policy, Borden submitted that neither party had a clear commitment, citing current debates over abortion limits and the Paris Climate Accord.
“I’m guessing most people would answer the question of ‘do fetuses at 20 weeks feel pain?’ with their own political opinions, not with what the latest reading of scientific research is on that issue,” Borden said.
He also said the Paris agreement is nonbinding, and it is up to the nations involved to determine their specific actions.
“We’re still not having a robust debate in Washington on a carbon tax,” Borden said. “It tells you neither party is really putting much effort into real things that would reduce carbon emissions, if they really cared about the issue,” rather than using the Paris deal as a political wedge.
The panel’s fourth member was Brandon Ferrance, a Shippensburg University student and current head of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans, who offered the clearest picture of where the party could, or should go.
“I think the two ways to hit on that are to talk about the economy and national security,” Ferrance said. “Those are the two big issues that my generation really seems to care about.”
“It might have to do with the party, but I think a lot of it is that our generation doesn’t fit a particular party,” Ferrance said, addressing declining membership among both Democrats and Republicans, and a rise of independent voter registration.
Most students interested in GOP politics were fiscally conservative but socially liberal, Ferrance said, prompting O’Connell to ask if the GOP would change its stances in reaction.
“I think so, and in the future I think we will see that,” Ferrance said. “A lot of the college Republicans that I meet throughout the state are in the same mindset, and I think as the years go on the party will shift more and more into that direction.”
O’Connell then asked if Donald Trump was a candidate — like Ronald Reagan— that could attract a fresh wave of younger members to the party.
“I think he can be that kind of leader,” Ferrance said, although “in my opinion, he should put away the Twitter every now and then.”
“I think we’re in the middle of a great experiment as to whether a politician can ignore all the advice they’re getting from their PR handlers and ultimately be successful,” Borden said. “It’s worked up to this point ... but it’s an experiment.”
“I think he’s finally stepping back a bit,” Amoore said. “We’re not seeing a Tweet every second like we did in the beginning. He’s taking baby steps.”
Amoore said she had met with Trump several times regarding outreach to African-Americans.
“It was interesting, I’ll put it like that,” she said.
Whatever his upsides may be, it was clear that Trump has made it more difficult for Republicans to define what they stand for.
At one point, when asked by a student what the GOP could do to bolster transgender rights, Gerlach defined the Republican stance by saying the party would not do what the president said it would.
“There’s certainly debates now because Trump, through a Twitter message, announced his decision to ban [transgender] folks from military service, but I’m not so sure that’s going to be carried out in the long run,” Gerlach said. “I don’t see Congress stepping in and trying to statutorily mandate what the president put out in a Twitter message.”