Canadians are mourning the passing of Peter Lougheed, premier of oil-rich Alberta from 1971 to 1985. He was a Progressive Conservative leader, so his legacy reflects a progressive and a conservative current of governance, reminiscent of the Republican Party in pre-Reagan days. Reflecting on Lougheed’s contributions, I can’t help but consider what lessons today’s Republicans could draw from his governance.
Occasionally, I have been nostalgic about the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. Lincoln abolished slavery at the cost of a civil war, while Eisenhower led the post-war economic and political powerhouse without dismantling FDR’s New Deal. Both leaders were progressive in policy and action while leading conservative governments under which fiscal responsibility took precedence over more government spending. Whether you are Democrat or Republican today, the political center is where Lincoln and Eisenhower would be. It’s where the American voter has been most comfortable over the years.
While the political centre has moved around over time, Americans have always expected their leaders to remain as close to the middle as possible. Lougheed, arguably the most significant premier in modern Canada, showed that the political center could be the source of sound politics in the modern age — even while adhering to conservative principles. Today’s U.S. Republicans have clearly strayed from this stance.
Republicans could learn from the way Lougheed engaged in civil discourse and debate. He played hardball, as former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau found out, but he would not engage in the politics of destruction to win the day. As JFK once said, “Civility is not a sign of weakness.” Go tell that to the Tea Party!
With fewer than two months before vote, one may ask: What does Lougheed’s legacy of progressivism, conservatism and civility have to do with the Republican party? A lot, actually. Maybe just enough to win the contest, if the party can adjust in time for the debate season.
Recent polls show a tight race nationally, but a marked trend for Barack Obama in the swing states. Romney’s bizarre intervention into unfolding events in Libya and Egypt last week betrayed the state of the GOP. The party seems all about attack politics and ideological rigidity. With a noticeably small amount of undecided voters and with the economy still favoring Obama’s opponent, it would seem like time for Republicans to refocus and reset.
Republican economic policies, while still vague, show little difference with those that led to the Great Recession. Foreign policy and thinking on national security seems improvised, as we saw last week. And Romney’s identity problem grows by the day. Two presidential runs and a nominating convention and we’re still asking, Who is the real Romney?
I know pro-Romney readers will attack this as another pro-Obama account. So be it. But then how come you are trailing in a weak economy in which there are few short-term prospects for improvements and the base is energized against the incumbent president? Polls indicate American voters long for a moderate, constructive and inclusive alternative. Lougheed showed us how it worked. Lincoln and Eisenhower are also proven examples. Even Reagan moved to the centre when needed, as Democrat Tip O’Neill confirmed it.
Republicans of today seem like prisoners of another time. It may be too late to make significant change. And yet they ignore lessons the past and other jurisdictions at their peril.