When the Republican Party elected David Sunderland as its new party leader last Saturday in what was described as a contentious meeting, it was also, as Sunderland said, a deliberate change in direction.
“I think today what we can take away from this is that the Vermont Republican Party has voted for change — a change in direction, a change in tone, and we plan on going forward.”
The election drew press coverage because of party infighting and public differences aired by those supporting a more moderate perspective versus the more conservative views that are represented by the national Republican Party. During the meeting last Saturday, speaker after speaker urged party unity. Sunderland’s election promises to do just that.
In an in-depth interview in today’s Addison Independent, Sunderland elaborates on why he’s optimistic that the Republican Party can rebuild in Vermont and why it’s important. He’s right on target.
It is vital to any democracy to have a strong minority party. As it is today, with just 48 seats out of 150 in the House and seven of 30 seats in the Senate, the Republican Party has no effective voice. That weakness prevents a more thorough and critical discussion of the major ideas proposed by the governor’s administration and the Legislature. Progressives in the Legislature have also gained a stronger voice because of the Republican decline, a development that pushes the Legislature even further to the left.
It is also true that politics follow a pendulum-like cycle and when one party moves too far in one direction, politics start to swing back toward the center. The Republicans, in other words, are likely to see their political fortunes improve as the changes enacted under the current administration and Legislature meet with resistance and disappointment.
But it is not a given.
If the Vermont GOP were to insist on pressing the social agenda of the national party— the anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-civil rights, anti-poverty, even anti-education agenda — it would continue its steady decline. And if Vermont Republicans were to adopt the national party’s extreme partisanship, it would also continue its decline.
Sunderland recognizes that and seems to embrace a more pragmatic, and less dogmatic approach in the footsteps of Senators Jeffords, Stafford and Aiken.
Among the issues Sunderland says Republicans here need to tackle, he cites the high cost of living, an education system that is unduly expensive, pensions that are underfunded and a growing budget deficit. All are issues that a strong Republican Party can champion and work with Democrats to achieve a better outcome for Vermont.
To be successful, however, Sunderland and his party will have to be put forward ideas that work and solve current problems. It’s not enough to criticize the move toward a single-payer health care system without also admitting the shortcomings of the current system and proposing a solution. It’s not enough to criticize the state’s education funding mechanism without also crafting a counter proposal that meets the constitutional guidelines of providing an equal education to all Vermont students. It’s not enough to bemoan the state’s deficit without also accepting responsibility for taking care of the poor, sick, underemployed and others in need.
To be a party with a future, Republicans will have to embrace a positive agenda that tackles financial issues while also helping solve social ills.
Sunderland might also want to put a lid on some of their most vocal cheerleaders, like GOP national committeeman Jay Shepard, who cast a familiar pall on the party when he pled for unity: “Our enemy is not in this room,” he told fellow Republicans last Saturday. “As we sit here, the Democrats are planning another step in taking away our freedoms, our liberties and our way of life. Those are the people that are the real threat… We need to know who the real enemy is. I’ll tell you right now, the worst Republican I know is a much better person than Barack Obama.”
In response, we hope Sunderland let out an audible sign of despair, then hoisted up his belt for the struggle ahead. As well as a good sense of humor, a steady hand on party policy and the cleverness of a public relations guru, Sunderland might also need a long shepherd’s crook to pull a few of his would-be friends off stage before they sink a boat that is barely afloat.
Angelo S. Lynn