Progressive Republicans: extinct in 2010, but not forgotten

Right-wing Republicans showed their muscle in the 2010 mid-term elections, and are effectively turning the phrase “moderate Republican” into an oxymoron. But, although it may be hard to believe, there once was a progressive presence in the the Republican party.

Conservative leaders don’t want you to know about their progressive predecessors, because their existence would reflect how extreme they are today, even in the context of being Republicans.

Recently a network called Progressive Republicans started a web site in an attempt to preserve the heritage of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and others who have worked from the GOP side of the aisle to promote social justice and economic fairness. Unfortunately, clicking on their link takes you to a dead website, further underscoring the demise of even a glimmer of moderation in the Republican realm.

It wasn’t that long ago that liberal Republicans from the Northeast were in the vanguard of the civil rights movement.  By all rights, Jacob Javits should have been a Democrat, but he wasn’t.  He grew up in New York, in a teeming Lower East Side tenement.  His father was a janitor, and his mother sold dry goods from a cart.  He worked hard, graduated from George Washington High School in New York, and took night classes at Columbia University while working a variety of jobs during the day.  He later received a law degree from NYU.

In his youth Javits had watched his father work as a ward heeler for Tammany Hall and experienced firsthand the corruption and graft associated with that notorious political machine. Tammany’s operations repulsed Javits so much that he forever rejected the city’s Democratic party, and in the early 1930s joined the Republican-Fusion party, which was supporting the mayoral campaigns of Fiorello H. La Guardia.

This was in an era when, if you were a person of compassion and found the local Democratic Party to be too corrupt for your taste, you had a choice.  Not only could you join the Republican Party; you were courted to do so.

After serving terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and as Attorney-General of the state of New York, Jacob Javits ran for U.S. Senator in 1956.  He won by nearly a half million votes and began a twenty-four year career as not only a progressive Republican but as one of the most liberal voices in the Senate.

He was an early supporter of civil rights legislation, including Dwight Eisenhower’s bill in 1957.  It provided only limited voting protection for minorities, but it began an eleven year run of civil rights legislation that expanded rights for minorities in the areas of public accommodations, employment, voting, and housing.  Perhaps most importantly, enforcement agencies were established to guarantee rights.  Special attention was paid to ensuring voting rights in southern states.

Like many liberal senators, Jacob Javits initially supported Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War; he voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.  However he was part of the rising tide of individuals and legislators who came to oppose the war in late 1967.  He reversed himself by voting to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and voted against sending troops to Cambodia.

While he was not a major player in the Senate’s efforts to unravel the Watergate fiasco, after winning election to his fourth (and final) term in 1974, he took an increasing role in foreign affairs.  Working with Jimmy Carter, he journeyed to Israel and Egypt to facilitate discussions that led to the 1978 Camp David Agreement.

In 1979, both his health and his political fortunes declined.  He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, but tried to run for a fifth term in 1980.  He was defeated twice; once in the Republican primary and then in November while running on the Liberal party ticket.

If we focus and Jacob Javits’ first and last political acts, we can truly appreciate how unique he was and how distant today’s Republicans are from his legacy.  First he joined the Republican Party because he didn’t want to get involved in the corruption of the Democratic Party.  Obviously, Democratic corruption still exists, so avoiding that could be a motivator for other “natural Democrats” to consider running as Republicans.  Finally, he left the Republican Party when he was defeated in a primary by the very conservative Alfonse D’Amato.  He then joined a party that wanted him, the Liberal Party.

Jacob Javits’ legacy stands on its own and it can be a model for humanizing the Republican Party and repositioning its “tent.”  First, it should be a home for honest and public-oriented Democrats who feel uncomfortable with their local Democratic Party.  Second, the Republican should learn that the door swings both ways.  If individual Republicans are stifled by near-totalitarian rule within the party (are you listening Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins?), they can bolt and join the Democrats.  Anyway, it’s a much more enjoyable “club.” With whom would you rather have dinner, Al Franken or Mitch McConnell?  Thank you, Mr. Javits.

Note: Considerable historical information in this article is from a well-documented article in Wikipedia.  The paragraphs that primarily include Wikipedia information are indented.

[This article was first published in Occasional Planet in March 2010. After seeing the results of the November 2, 2010 elections, we thought it merited a second look.]