It went largely unreported, but 6th District Congressman Tom Petri gave his farewell speech to the Republican Party of Wisconsin Convention Saturday. Petri, as you likely know, chose not to seek re-election after being challenged from his right in a primary by State Senator Glenn Grothman. Conventional wisdom is that an extremist push to the right has made a moderate such as Petri obsolete in Washington. In bringing up the formative days of the Republican Party in Ripon, Petri was clearly warning the GOP of the dangers of being non-inclusive. He described how the Democratic Party at the time was on the rise and the opposition parties were waning in influence:
"Their main rival, the Whig party, struggled with inter-party dysfunction, lost the presidency in the 1852 election and soon after, became defunct. Other smaller political parties were struggling as well. Ultimately, members of the dying political parties realized they could not succeed independently. They needed a coalition and they needed a reinvention."
Petri’s message: the modern Republican Party must continue to be big enough for all with the same core conservative principles or perish. He continued:
"This is not the conservative party convention, or the libertarian party convention or the moderate party convention; this is the Republican Party convention! E Pluribus Unum! Out of many, one! That’s the motto of our country, but it’s also the story of our party."
Clearly Petri feels the party has lost sight of the fact that it needs to include elected officials who hold the same core beliefs, even if there are some differences in ideology around the edges. One of the principles Petri enumerated was smaller government. And that’s where many in the party feel that Petri and Republicans of his era no longer fit in the party.
Petri may believe that’s a core belief of his, but for most of his career he has been content with slowing the growth of government and not being insistent that we reverse course and shrink government. That was the gold standard set by the Tea Party Movement in 2010.
Further, as I sat listening to Petri in the convention hall, I got the sense he was conflating what I’ve come to call the "mainstream" Tea Party Movement with the fringe element that tried to hijack the convention with extreme resolutions. The Tea Party branch of the Republican Party is a legitimate movement that is trying to reform the party into a genuine smaller government party, as it claims to be.
Petri never sounded bitter during the speech, but it was clear that he believes the margins of the party have narrowed to exclude people, himself included, who are legitimately conservative. In reality, Petri has this exactly backwards.
The party isn’t excluding him. He was free to seek re-election. For whatever reason, Petri chose not to run. But it’s very possible that he realized that the electorate of the 6th Congressional District may be prepared to choose a candidate outside the decades-old template Tom Petri represents. One who, while not necessarily rigid and intransigent, won’t go along to get along. Solid candidates once marginalized because they were considered fiscal extremists now have a home under the Republican tent. Ten years ago none of the three candidates in the race today would have stood a chance against Petri. Now the threat of them has forced him out of the race, by his own choosing.
The tent hasn’t gotten smaller. Petri simply didn’t like the new company. That’s not marginalization. That’s growth. Just as the Republican Party of 1854 realized it need a coalition, the same party 160 years later is struggling to learn it does too.
Petri doesn’t seem to see that it is the Tea Party Movement and not incumbents such as him who have been waiting so very long for inclusion. Nor does he seem to realize that the movement is a reinvention much like the one he describes from 1854.