Historian Pegs GOP Future to Its past

By Matt Pyeatt | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - While many candidates run for office on the Republican ticket and espouse what passes for a conservative ideology, historian Michael Zak questions whether they understand the GOP's history well enough to get the right points across.

Zak, author of Back To Basics For The Republican Party, highlights the 147-year history of the Republican Party and addresses issues that face the GOP today, particularly in terms of getting elected, staying in office and remaining different from the Democrats.

While historical knowledge of GOP politics is important, it's more important to revisit the party's original agenda in a contemporary context, according to Zak. "The more the Republicans know about the history of their party, the more the Democrats will worry about the future of theirs," Zak said.

Zak notes that "the much-maligned Radical Republicans" of the mid-19th century were chiefly responsible for constitutional amendments ending slavery and ensuring voting rights to blacks, and that the landmark civil rights legislation of the early 1960s was a series of reforms the GOP "struggled for in vain during the Reconstruction era a hundred years earlier."

In light of gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey in 2001, Zak said it is just as important now as it's ever been to inform elected officials and candidates about the party's history.

But Jeanette Hoffman, communications director for the New Jersey Republican Party, discounted the importance of the party's roots and said one reason Republican Bret Schundler lost the governor's race was because of the political dynamic in the primary.

Schundler sought and won the GOP nomination without the support of the state Republican Party apparatus, and only after then Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco dropped out of the race following allegations of questionable ethics.

Communications also played a large role in Schundler's defeat, according to Hoffman.

"We allowed the Democrats to define our candidate before he was able to define himself so he was viewed as very right-wing," said Hoffman. "That was a very unfortunate circumstance with some of his positions. For example, his position on gun control was just twisted around," she said.

Zak's book touches on that very issue. "By accepting distortions by Democrats about our own party, they put us on the defensive," he said. "They outmaneuver us because we don't even know our own story.

By failing to build on past achievements, Zak argues Republicans forsake a valuable political foil. "It is very important for Republicans ... to be aware of the accomplishments of our party and to be proud and to use the knowledge of the contributions of the Republican Party as tools with which to build better campaigns."

Zak and Hoffman agreed that a broader approach is necessary for Republicans to win elections in New Jersey. "Our loss at the top of ticket was because the candidate was not able to appeal to women and independents and soft Democrats," said Hoffman. "In New Jersey, if you don't win that middle ground, you're not going to win the election," she said.

But, Zak attributes those difficulties to Republicans being unprepared to defend their party's history. "We win when we talk big picture and truth, and we tend to lose when we talk details based on Democrats' distortion," he said.

With the belief that the Republican Party stands on the moral high ground, Zak said a closer association with the party's past is essential. "I would say that given that the Republican Party's heritage is so much more honorable than that of the Democrats, Republican activists and voters feel a bond with Republican heroes and accomplishments of the past," Zak said.

"In most areas of the South, leadership of the Ku Klux Klan and the Democratic Party were indistinguishable," during the post-Civil War era, Zak writes. "The white-supremacist Democrats used the Klan to eliminate Republican opposition."

Bill Buck, deputy press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, disagreed with Zak's descriptions of the Democratic Party.

"I would say that, from what I've heard, that [Zak's statements] don't reflect the history or the values of the Democratic Party," Buck said.

Buck also speculated that if the Republican Party's first president, Abraham Lincoln, were alive today, "he would be a Democrat." When asked to elaborate, Buck said, "I'll just let it stand there."

Kevin Sheridan, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said the party is always working to increase knowledge of the party's history and the importance of its heritage, using and promoting its most prominent elected official. "I can't think of anyone better to do that than George W. Bush," Sheridan said.