In Ohio, History Of GOP 'Pragmatism' Up Against 'Trumpism'

Merchandise for sale at the GOP convention in Cleveland in July. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)
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by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

Northeast Ohio lost two strong moderate Republicans this year, in former Governor, Senator, and Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, and former Congressman Steven LaTourette.  I spoke with LaTourette before he died, and he said Voinovich heralded a next generation of true Republican leader.  I spoke about this idea recently in the context of the presidential election with John Green, director of the Ray Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.  He began by explaining why Ohio politics is unique:

GREEN: “The Republican Party in Ohio has for many, many years had a strong pragmatic element. Some of that manifests itself in being somewhat more moderate on public policy.  In some cases it doesn’t really mean more moderation in opinion but certainly a willingness to work with other Republicans, to work with Democrats, to reach across the aisle.  Senator Voinovich a very good example of that kind of pragmatism. The chairman of the Republican Party during that era, the late Bob Bennett, was another good example.  You know this group of Republicans really believed in the ‘big tent.’ Bob Bennett used to say to people that good policy is good politics, and to Bennett and to Voinovich and other folks of that ilk, good policy was policy that worked and had appeal beyond Republican constituencies.”

GANZER: “Do you think there is any damage that so-called ‘Trumpism’ or Donald Trump’s style of politicking can do to Ohio’s pragmatic approach, as you said?”

GREEN: “Well you know a lot of Republicans in Ohio are worried about potential damage that a Trump presidential candidacy could have to their party.  Most of the damage that they worry about is short-term, you know, what kind of down-ballot effects will it have?  Will it bring another kind of Republican into the party that is less pragmatic? But there are also some long-term worries.  Because of the great diversity of Ohio both parties have had a tendency to move toward the center.  And Republicans for many, many years have had a lot of success in Ohio because of that.  So yeah there are some worries that ‘Trumpism’ in its various forms may damage not just the reputation but the style of the Republican Party.”

GANZER: I spoke to Ohio GOP consultant Mark Weaver before this last presidential debate, and before this video tape of Donald Trump making lewd comments came out.  Mr. Weaver had said he thought Republicans at-large may be insulated from Donald Trump because wasn’t seen as a Republican per se.  Do you think that’s true?”

GREEN: “Well certainly a lot of Republican candidates—and perhaps the best example is Senator Portman, who is up for re-election this year—have tried very hard to insulate themselves from the short-term impacts of the campaign.  How successful that insulation ends up being remains to be seen. But there really was an effort to make that separation.  Because Gov. John Kasich was one of Trump’s opponents, and has been very critical of Trump, there is a sense in which Ohio Republicans can see that their party was not a strong supporter of Trump. And at the individual level that may help insulate the party from the effects of the presidential campaign.”

GANZER: “Gov. Kasich has long championed this idea of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ that we’ve seen for decades through the GOP.  Do you think there’s room for that kind of more compassionate approach to conservatism to maybe take the majority in the party after Donald Trump?”

GREEN: “Well it’s a really good question of what happens to the Republican Party after Donald Trump.  Of course some Republicans are worried that he may cost Republicans a lot of seats in the 2016 election as he loses the presidential race.  But there are others that are even more afraid of what would happen if Trump were to win and the kind of changes he might affect in terms of national policy, and damage he might do to the Republican style.  But here in Ohio, I think there is a lot of room for the kind of ‘Compassionate Conservatism.’  Of course the limit to that is there are regions of the country that are very Republican that are also much more conservative, and therefore less likely to appreciate that blending of social compassion with economic conservatism.”

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