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Kurt Bardella is a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project. He is a former aide to California Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray and former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.
There was a time when being a Democrat or a Republican was defined by your views about health care, abortion, gun control, taxes, education, foreign policy, etc.
Those days are over.
It was something to hear Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah and the party’s standard-bearer in 2012, tell CNN’s Jake Tapper on Dec. 20, “I represent a very small slice of the Republican Party today.” An obvious, but candid, acknowledgement.
As he explained, the party he knew as a young man — and even just eight years ago — is gone.
“We were a party concerned about balancing the budget. We believed in trade with other nations. We were happy to play a leadership role on the world stage, because we felt that made us safer and more prosperous. And we believed that character was essential in the leaders that we chose. We have strayed from that. I don’t see us returning to that for a long time.”
Yet, when asked whether he thinks about leaving the GOP, Romney — like other Republicans who say they are repulsed by Donald Trump’s takeover — declined. He said he would be more effective battling inside the party. But I venture that’s only part of the rationale.
As someone who left the Republican Party to become a Democrat for similar reasons, people often ask me how I could have stayed in the GOP after Trump won.
The truth is, changing your political identity is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. For a person in politics — for the thousands of elected officials, staffers, local party officials, the entire political class really — it means unplugging from everyone you know and the foundation of your professional and social life. Imagine spending years of your life building relationships with like-minded people, and then one day, deciding to start over.
When you work in politics, your party is your team and your career. No one goes into politics without loving that life. If anyone thinks it is easy to casually discard all that because it is “the right thing to do,” you honestly have no idea what doing so really means.
That’s why when Trump took office, many in Republican circles clung to the belief that he could be steered or managed. That despite the inflammatory words and actions that littered the campaign, the adults in the room would be able to contain Trump and preserve the political goals of the Republican Party.
I went through that very cycle when I made the decision in 2017 to leave the GOP. In doing so, I had to accept that I might not work in professional politics ever again. Back then, there was no Lincoln Project and nowhere for a former Republican-turned-Democrat to land.
Three years later, the situation in our country is even more dire. Republican leaders refuse to stand up to Trump even now, and by staying silent, are actively aiding and abetting his deranged plot to steal the election and undermine the will of the people.
I appreciate where Romney is coming from, but there comes a point where an institution is so thoroughly broken it must be rebuilt someplace else. The party’s true platform has become a toxic combination of authoritarianism and white nationalism. Rebuilding the party will require dismantling it. And helping in that cause doesn’t mean becoming an independent or agitating for a third party.
In the American two-party system, it means joining the other side — the Democrats. Steve Schmidt, Lincoln Project co-founder and John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008, explained why in a recent interview. “At the end of the day, there’s now one pro-democracy political party in the United States of America and that’s the Democratic Party,” he said. “And I am a member of that party because of that. I’m a single-issue voter. I believe in American democracy.”
At the start of the Trump presidency, anti-Trumpers who identified as Republicans stayed with the team hoping that their policy positions would still form the basis of a Republican agenda. That experiment is over.
If you were a Republican because you believed in fiscal restraint, under Trump the debt and deficit have exploded. If you were a Republican because you believed the GOP was stronger on national and homeland security, just look at what Trump said recently in cynically downplaying Russia’s cyberattack against our country. If you are a Republican because you believe in law and order, examine the records of the corrupt people Trump just gave pardons and commutations to. If you are a Republican because you are pro-life, there are more than 340,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 to call into question the GOP’s commitment to the sanctity of life.
Whatever issue has kept you aligned with the Republican Party, it’s time to accept that none of those issues supersedes the welfare of our democracy. When your party takes leave of its senses and takes its lead from the delusional rantings of a conspiracy theorist, it’s time to switch teams.