By Peter Jamison
I spent the momentous night of Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, in an unlikely place — among Republicans in San Francisco. To observe the city’s longtime political minority watching their party recede to a minority nationwide, I ventured down to Jones Roadhouse, a bar in the Marina. There I found an election night bash put on by the San Francisco Republican Party and San Francisco Young Republicans, lots of TV screens tuned to FOX News, and a curiously blasé air among the party faithful about what the future holds.
Perhaps a sense of fatalism is what comes from being a conservative in a city that this fall held spirited debates over decriminalizing prostitution, municipalizing a private power grid, and banning junior ROTC, among other issues. Still, I had a sense that San Francisco Republicans, like their counterparts across the country, were in a greater-than-usual state of shock. So this week, as Beltway bloviators and party hacks flooded talk radio and cable news to chew over what Republicans should do in the wake of last week’s Democratic sweep, I called a few veteran Republican activists in this most liberal of cities for their thoughts on whether, and how, the GOP can claw its way back from the edge of irrelevancy.
Donald Casper, president of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission and former chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party, warned that the national party’s first stages of soul-searching may be moving in the wrong direction. “We’re going to hear a lot about a return to basics in the party, but that call should not be used as a smokescreen for walling off the party — for restricting the party to the far right,” Casper said. “For me, the lesson to be learned from this election is that, yes, there must be a concentration on core Republican values, but the party has to seek out a variety of ways of looking at those core values and implementing those core values. It’s possible for the party to transform itself and still be Republican.”
Specifically, Casper said members of the party should move past their fundamentalist opposition to government intervention in financial markets and — more to the point in California — their hard-line views on restricting immigration.
Chris Bowman, another Republican activist, said the immigration debate is precisely where the modernization of the Republican Party should start. Echoing Casper, he said the GOP has unnecessarily driven away Latino voters otherwise inclined to share Republican views. “I think they jettison the whole immigration issue,” Bowman said. “If that costs them the support of the extreme right wing and talk radio, so be it… that is probably the major thing that could be done.” Bowman, who is active in Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that works to make the GOP more inclusive of gays and lesbians, declined to discuss the party’s stance on social issues.
Arthur Bruzzone, who chaired the San Francisco Republican Party in the early 1990s, said the GOP went through a similar bout of despondency following the election of Bill Clinton. “There are times when you’ve got to take a deep breath, and step back,” Bruzzone said, adding that the current omnipresent debate over the party’s future is overwrought: “They’re pushing too hard.” Bruzzone said the future shape of the derelict GOP will depend, in large measure, on what they see — and can make political hay by opposing — across the aisle. “Obama will define that,” Bruzzone said. “The Democrats will define that. The Republicans have always been a reactive party.”