What the Media Missed About Arlen Specter's Switch and Reagan's Big Tent

By Mark Joseph Producer/Author/Editor, Bullypulpit.com

In all of the punditry that has accompanied Arlen Specter's departure from the Republican party, none is more curious -- or inaccurate -- than the assertion that this housecleaning of liberal Republicans from the party is somehow a departure from Ronald Reagan's philosophy of having a "big-tent" party, i.e.: a party where many would be made to feel comfortable even if they weren't always in agreement on every issue.

Reagan had once famously articulated an inclusive philosophy that welcomed all to his party and he was fond of saying things like "somebody who agrees with you 80% of the time is an 80% friend not a 20% enemy." But his inclusiveness had its limitations. Reagan's contempt for the Rockefeller wing (what would today be called moderate or liberal Republicans) of the GOP was legendary and the feeling was mutual.

Those GOP forces who today misquote Reagan and have misunderstood Reagan's idea of a big-tent need look no further than Mary Dent Crisp, once a prominent leader in the Republican party, who in 1977 was appointed its co-chair.

Although Crisp had been a Republican longer than Reagan and had worked her way up the ladder of party leadership, Reagan was now defining what the party stood for and Crisp was outraged at the party's new values on abortion and the ERA.

"Although our party has presented the outward appearance of vibrant health, I'm afraid we are suffering from serious internal sickness," she said during platform committee meetings in 1980. "Now we are . . . about to bury the rights of over 100 million American women under a heap of platitudes."

The next day Reagan showcased his big-tent philosophy, telling reporters that Crisp "should look to herself and see how loyal she's been to the Republican Party for quite some time."

Crisp got the message, left the convention and signed on with the third party candidacy of a more moderate/liberal Republican named John Anderson.

So what should the GOP learn from Reagan's big tent philosophy?

First, he did indeed have a big tent, especially in 1984, which allowed 59% of the electorate to vote for him, but it was a tent of Reagan's design in which those who disagreed with him had little say about how the tent was constructed, but were welcome to stay anyway. Pro-choice women were welcomed into the tent as voters so long as they didn't try to change the party's position on the issue of abortion, one which Reagan held dearly enough to have written a book about while still in office. Union members were courted by Reagan, so long as they didn't mind Reagan's tough policies toward organizing which included his firing of striking air traffic controllers and eventually came to be known as "Reagan Democrats." Those jittery over Reagan's bellicose statements on foreign policy were also welcomed, provided they could live with his tough posture toward communism. And even Rockefeller Republicans were allowed to stay in the tent so long as they realized that they were joining his party and not the other way around, that while they would be horrified by the new boss's position on social issues for instance, they'd find something to cheer about in his tax cuts.

Reagan's big tent also included some unsavory characters on the extreme right. While disavowing any connection to the John Birch Society, accused by some of having racist tendencies, Reagan invited its members into his big tent saying that if members supported him it was in indication that he had "persuaded them to accept my philosophy, not me accepting theirs."

In contrast, Reagan considered members of what has derisively come to be known as "the religious right" as not a fringe group to be courted, but a foundational element of the big tent he constructed. Meeting with Christian leaders in 1980, he famously declared "You can't endorse me, but I endorse you," and made sure that platform committees that were to decide party policy were heavily stacked in their favor.

In Reagan's big tent, the likes of Arlen Specter would always have been welcomed, so long as they were willing to go along with Reagan, but the moment they stood in the way, as Mary Dent Crisp did, and sought to assert their policies on his vision for the party, they were shown the door. Today, the big tent that Reagan stitched together is in disarray, but if its leaders are to return from political oblivion, they'd do well to remember how Reagan went about constructing the tent and the philosophy that swept him, and two weak Republican successors who rode his political coattails into the White House, and build a tent which stands for key principles, yet never fails to welcome those who disagree, as honored guests.