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Jim Lees: W.Va. Democrats providing inroads to Republican Party

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A recent Gazette editorial asked an interesting question: Why is West Virginia increasingly becoming a "red" state?

With four straight presidential elections in its column, two of three congressional seats in the fold, an incoming attorney general and a Supreme Court justice, and well over 40 out of 100 seats in the House of Delegates, the state Republican Party has every reason to believe it is only a matter of time before all major state offices are held by Republicans.

Given the lower economic status of many West Virginians, a profound lack of available health-care insurance coverage and a history of union organization and activism, it is indeed a legitimate question as to why West Virginia, during the past 12 years, has marched steadily into ranks of the red states.

I would respectfully suggest the problem lies at least in part with a question I posed in my first run for governor, clear back in 1996: What precisely is it that makes one a Democrat?

I was asking (and attempting to answer) the broad question of what exactly was the overriding philosophy of the Democratic Party that distinguished it in any meaningful way from the Republican Party?

I continued to ask the question through the 2000 gubernatorial campaign as I lost the Democratic primary to Bob Wise. And throughout those two campaigns I received the same answer from "party elders": The Democratic Party is a "big tent" with room for everyone holding competing views and opinions, and we as a party must never seek to define our philosophy for fear of losing potential voters to the other party.

By being the biggest of the "big tents," the Democratic Party will be a home for everyone: pro-choice AND right-to-life; pro-gambling and pro-guns AND anti-gambling and anti-guns. (I always found it curious that most anti-gambling people were pro-gun people, as if gambling would kill us and guns would provide hours of fun and frivolity); pro-labor AND pro-business; etc.

Politics became a game of positioning on the issues as opposed to a philosophy that dictated positions, and the Democratic Party became a party of all positions.

Now at the end of 2012, I now ask those same party elders: How has the "big tent" philosophy worked out for you? Pretty soon that big tent is going to have plenty of room to lease out to the new Republican elected officials for their annual Christmas parties.

I argued (obviously unsuccessfully) in 1996 and 2000 that the Democratic Party should be defined as the party that believes in the power of government to change peoples' lives for the better. Government in the right hands can dramatically improve the lives of our citizens, and Democrats could and should be articulating positions in which government acts in a manner to improve our collective plight.

Republicans on the other hand espouse a philosophy of less government, with the individual and the private sector stepping up to improve the quality of lives (remember the "Thousand Points of Light" speech?). Political philosophy helps define positions on issues so that elections can be about competing philosophies rather than single-issue referendums.

There is nothing wrong with two powerful political parties debating the great issues of the day through this fundamental framework. Democrats should never be ashamed to propose innovative solutions to big problems through the effective use of government. Republicans should never be ashamed to oppose government programs in favor of more effective solutions through nongovernment means.

But when a political party sacrifices its quintessential philosophy in favor of a marketing campaign designed to admit anyone and everyone into the tent in hope of staying in the majority, then that party is destined for failure.

West Virginia Democrats need to explain why government involvement in health insurance is a good thing for most West Virginia citizens and small businesses -- not simply rail against "Obamacare" like Rush Limbaugh on speed.

Democrats need to explain why government investments in education benefit the overall economy of the state. With government inspecting our meat supply, testing our drugs before they are approved for sale, building our roads and bridges, and providing a police and military to keep us safe, Democrats can make a case for the use of government as a positive force in our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Please stop with the big-tent mentality while there is still a chance to save the Democratic Party in West Virginia. Otherwise let's all simply agree to throw Sen. Rockefeller a nice retirement party, sign up to work for Jeb Bush, and start serving tea at our parties.

Lees is a Charleston lawyer long involved in Democratic politics and West Virginia reform issues.


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