Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Exercise In Futility At The Waldorf-Astoria - Part 1

Today I attended a luncheon seminar presented by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, in conjunction with the Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

My interest in attending was twofold. First, John Sununu, the Republican Senator from New Hampshire, was slated to give the keynote address on the topic "Restoring the Republican Revolution". I anticipated that Senator Sununu was going to be talking about how the Republican Party lost its way by abandoning its limited government principles for the sake of pork-barrel spending. In the event that he would be taking questions from the audience at the end of his talk, I wanted to address an entirely different concern I have about the Republican Party.

But the highlight of the day's events was a luncheon address to be given by Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I had been familiar with Ms. Ali since the murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a Moroccan immigrant. But my interest increased when I recently saw her on TV, either on Jon Stewart's show or Steven Colbert's, in which she said that she considered herself to be an atheist. "Yeah, way to go!" I said to myself. In anticipation of attending the luncheon, I purchased her new book "Infidel", and made it my goal to (1) get her to sign my copy of her book, and (2) try to get someone to take my camera and snap a picture of the two of us.

After some brief opening remarks by Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, Senator Sununu took the podium to deliver his speech. As I expected, Sununu focused on the importance of the Republican Party standing on principle for limited government and low taxes. He referred repeatedly to late President Ronald Reagan with regard to presenting the American people with a vision of liberty and prosperity instead of constantly trying to appeal to voters with grab bag pieces of legislation or initiatives for the sake of winning elections. Senator Sununu was a decent, if not terribly charismatic speaker. With his eyeglasses, he comes across as a likeable nerd. He also has a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, so he is clearly a bright guy.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Senator Sununu agreed to take some questions from the audience, which by my estimate numbered about 150 people. I raised my hand sharply, as in line with my expectations, he did not address social issues or the influence of the Religious Right on the Republican Party. After being passed over several times, Sununu pointed to me, and one of the Cato staffers brought the microphone over to me. Being a bit of a nervous speaker in public, my comments and question were less sharp and more open-ended than I originally intended. While I cannot recall what I said word for word, my remarks were basically along the lines of "Senator Sununu, like yourself, I believe in things like limited government, pro-growth economic policies and good stuff like that. However, I am very concerned about the growing influence of the Religious Right on the Republican Party. I consider myself to be liberal on social issues and support gay rights and reproductive rights for women. Is there room for someone like me in your party?"

"Absolutely!" Senator Sununu replied. He basically said that as long as there was agreement about limited government principles, then we were all Republicans. But then he took a verbal tack, and to my annoyance, inverted the point I raised. He said that the Republican Party was the party that accommodated differing opinions about issues like abortion, and that it was the Democrats that had little tolerance for "pro-life" candidates in their party. That was when I figuratively kicked myself for botching the question. I wanted to throw at him some specific examples of what turned me off from the Republican Party, such as Sununu's Senate colleague Jim Demint of South Carolina, who according to Michelle Goldberg in her book "Kingdom Coming", wants to ban unmarried pregnant women from teaching in public schools. Then there is the sucking up of Republican presidential candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney to villains of the Religious Right such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Needless to say, I was disappointed in myself.

I stepped out of the room to use the bathroom. After I was done taking care of business, I walked back to the room and as I was starting up the stairs, there was Senator Sununu coming down the same stairs, followed by someone who might have been one of his staff members. The senator looked at me and stretched out his right hand to me. I took his hand for a quick shake and he said, "That was a good question you asked," and then was on his way. I felt a tad better, because as weak as my jab was, I did at least succeed in getting across to the senator that there were voters who agreed with fiscally conservative policies but felt alienated from the Republican Party because of their liberal social views.

The next two speakers at the seminar were a couple of Cato research fellows discussing topics that did not interest me very much, so I stepped outside for a few minutes to call a friend on my cell phone and catch some fresh air. While I stood on the sidewalk outside the Park Avenue entrance, I observed Cato Senior Fellow Jerry Taylor emerge from one of the revolving doors and whip out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. Taylor is a noted critic of government energy policies and global warming alarmism, so as he lit up his Marlboro, I said to him jokingly, "Aren't you contributing to global warming?" We chatted amiably for about five minutes or so, and I was pleasantly surprised when he expressed his agreement with me about the Religious Right's influence on the Republican Party and confessed that he had voted for John Kerry in 2004, as I did. Taylor also expressed his disgust with the Iraq War and for what he considered to be the incompetence of the Bush Administration in general.

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