Yes, Virginia, There are Liberal Republicans

05/12/2009 11:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Several weeks back, I was talking with a friend who is politically conservative. I praised a recent Obama bill for remarkably getting bi-partisan support, when he cut me off. "Oh, you mean those two women?" he interrupted, with ridicule dripping from his voice. "They're not Republicans. They're Democrats!"

(A quick digression out of fairness. "Those women" was not meant dismissively towards Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. My friend has a memory like a bad sieve. "Those two women" was the best he could do.)

Anyway, I was certain he was exaggerating - but he wasn't. "Oh, please," he kept scoffing, "they're Democrats."

It was clear that this was something he and his circle had previously settled among themselves. And I realized what the problem was, and it wasn't obstinance or gross stupidity.

Here's the thing, I told him. You've confused being conservative with being Republican. But there are conservative Democrats. And once there were moderate and even liberal Republicans, too. But you've pushed them all out, to the degree that you now can only recognize a Republican as someone who is conservative. And that's just not the case at all. There are moderate Republicans. And liberal ones.

To my friend's great credit, he stopped a moment, and then actually agreed. Mind you, I have little doubt that the next day this all was forgotten. Putting life into convenient boxes gives too much comforting order, no matter how false. His loss is that the reality would have been so much more rewarding.

You see, time was when the Grand Old Party did, indeed, have grandness to it. When it was a party of mixed views, and moderates and liberals could be seen as actual Republicans, alongside the conservative party elders.

The Republican Party, once upon a time - a time within the life of most people reading this - included among its members such moderates and even liberals as Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Margaret Chase Smith, Clifford Case, Mark Hatfield (who co-sponsored with George McGovern an amendment to end the Viet Nam War), Lowell Weicker, Richard Schweiker, Kenneth Keating and John Chafee. Remarkable people all of them, well-worth looking up. They may have been in the minority of their party, but they were trusted and admired voices, helping focus Republican direction.

And most of them now have been blocked out of the memory of today's Republicans, dismissed by a current generation that doesn't consider "those two women" in Maine even to be Republicans.

And so the Republican Party has hounded out officials who've dared not to be conservative. Jim Jeffords left the party. Lincoln Chafee left the party. Arlen Specter left the party. Americans have left the party. Today, only 21 percent of Americans consider themselves Republican. And so, today, there are zero Republicans in the House of Representatives from New England - where the country was founded, by the way. Gone.

And the Republican Party has started to lose the rest of the nation, as well. What has happened is that the Republican Party has become a party of the South. Less a party, in fact, and more a little-tent, religious revival meeting.

By contrast, the Democratic Party ranges from conservative senators like Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu and Jim Webb - to Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer on the liberal wing. With moderates filling the chewy, nougat center. No one would confuse this group - which includes fiscally conservative "Blue Dog Democrats" - of being of a united mind. And the House is even far more mixed. While this often causes consternation within the party, it's also what ultimately gives it a wide exchange of ideas - and ideals.

The result for Republicans is a party so top heavy on the right that John McCain, who long-prided himself as being a self-proclaimed "Maverick," was only able to win the GOP nomination by claiming he always had been a conservative. The result is that "those women" - lifelong Republicans - aren't even viewed as Republicans.

The result is that it wipes out the history - and often impressive history - of the Republican Party.

Today, the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt cultivates a divisive, empty demagogue like Sarah Palin, for no reason other than she's conservative, religious, and can see Russia from the beach. Today, the party of Dwight Eisenhower holds Tea Parties and Pizza Parties, dresses up in colonial garb, defends torture, and bows to a radio host.

Today, the Republican Party has forgotten what the Republican Party was founded on, and in doing so, has redefined itself into the ground, as it drives its moderate and liberal members away. The base can deny this all it wants, and wrap itself in its own True Values, but that only confirms the reality.

And if at some point all "those women" and "those men" end up driven away and actually become Democrats, it won't be because the far-right describing them were perceptive, but rather the party created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because when you push people out of the house, slam the door and lock it, they have nowhere else to go, but rely upon the kindness of the neighbors.