We may not like them, but political parties are central to our national dynamic. At their best, the parties evolve to something that more clearly represents our aspirations. At their worst, they ossify and become irrelevant to our real needs.
Ever since Oregon’s last Republican governor, Victor Atiyeh — one of the state’s best postwar chief executives — the Oregon GOP has languished in a religion-based miasma, in which abortion and homosexuality have been litmus tests.
Now state Republicans have nominated a credible candidate for governor, Knute Buehler. So this is a moment of promise, for the GOP and for our state’s political well-being. That is because the state’s Democratic party has become a Portland-centric value system that often is blind to the rest of the state. Because statewide Democratic candidates can roll up big majorities in Multnomah County, the party easily becomes smug and predictable, while being the captive and servant of the public employee unions.
It could be said that President Donald Trump complicates any attempt by the Oregon GOP to redefine itself. But Oregon history contains at least two scenarios that are relevant to the task in front of Buehler.
It is hard to imagine today, but prior to the mid-1950s, Oregon Democrats were the minority party –— without a U.S. senator since 1921 or a state legislative majority since 1878. That changed because of a liberal braintrust whose marquee name was Richard L. Neuberger — a state legislator and also one of America’s most prolific magazine writers and liberal voices.
When Neuberger won an Oregon House seat in Multnomah County in 1941, he became one of 24 Democratic representatives, outnumbered by 39 Republicans. Elected to the state Senate in 1949, Neuberger was one of 10 Democrats, outnumbered by 20 Republicans.
In 1952, Neuberger wrote: “No aisle divides the two parties, for the nine Democrats are heavily outnumbered by the 21 Republicans.”
One of Neuberger’s contemporaries whom I interviewed for biographical research said the Oregon Democratic party of the 1940s was “inarticulate.” And it was Neuberger who gave the party a voice. By 1959, Democrats had majorities in both the state House and Senate.
The second useful truth for Buehler is that for much of the 20th century, Republicans were Oregon’s progressive party. Mark Hatfield, while a state representative, authored a Civil Rights Act in 1953. Statewide land use planning was authored by two Republican farmers — Stafford Hansell of Eastern Oregon and Hector MacPherson of the Willamette Valley. They were aided and abetted by a Republican governor, Tom McCall.
Political parties change their faces over the years. While today’s Oregon Republican Party has been stymied by religion-based barriers for more than a decade, it’s essential for today’s Republicans to realize that their party was once the engine of progress in this state.
So it’s Buehler’s moment. Like Neuberger some 60 years ago, Buehler can become the voice of a new Oregon Republican Party — laying out values that appeal to a broad swath of Oregonians, beyond the ideologically pure.
Steve Forrester, the former editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian, is the president and CEO of EO Media Group.
PULL QUOTE: The state GOP was Oregon’s progressive party for most of the 20th century.