Jim Kolbe on polarized politics and libertarian Republicanism

Jim Kolbe was a libertarian Republican long before Ron Paul became a household name. From protecting the environment to building a more inclusive GOP, he explains his views in a candid discussion.

FLORIDA, October 10, 2012 — The Republican Party is in the midst of transition.

Over the last few decades, social rightism has been on the ascendancy, and this has resulted in more than a few electoral successes. As our country’s social norms and values evolve, however, said rightism is becoming less popular. 

Now, with moderates — who have traditionally dominated the GOP — hoping for a comeback, and libertarians trying to storm the establishment’s gates, so to speak, what the Party’s future will hold is anyone’s guess.

Jim Kolbe is a veteran former congressman who served his Tucson-based district from 1985 until 2007. During this time, he became established as a member of the GOP’s libertarian wing. As the first openly gay man to speak at a Republican national convention, and only the second to serve in Congress, his career has proven that the American center-right is more diverse than some might imagine.

In a candid interview with me, Rep. Kolbe explains his views about political polarization, how LGBT Republicans might fare during the years ahead, the popularity of libertarianism, and much more.           


Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics, especially as far as social issues are concerned. Not so long ago, finding common ground was not such a partisan debacle. Why do you believe that the times have changed?

Representative Jim Kolbe: I’m not sure this is the most polarized time in American politics on social issues. If you consider race a social issue, then we have more than a century when this issue divided the country first over slavery and then over segregation and other matters of equal rights. Certainly, there would be less disagreement on this topic today than we saw 50 years ago. 

More recently, abortion was a more divisive issue 30 years ago than today where both sides have sort of settled into an understanding of what is possible and what is not; while there is chipping around the edges from opponents, it has not been a major issue in political campaigns by and large for nearly two decades. On gay rights, what we see is an entirely generational issue. Opponents become more strident as they beat a retreat brought on by the advancing age of the millennial generation. 

Immigration is the one issue that has become more polarized and it is largely a function of Caucasians in our society realizing that they are rapidly being converted into a minority. The sense of dis-empowerment is very frightening to them.

Cotto: The legality of abortion is a highly contentious subject. Many hardline Republican activists and politicians would very much like to overturn Roe v. Wade. How do you think that the GOP should handle abortion rights during the years ahead?

Rep. Kolbe: On this issue, there is a gradual shift toward a more pro-life stance by most Americans. However, they still think abortion should be legal and the choice of a woman. Republicans will not change their pro-life stance, but they should recognize Roe v. Wade is settled law of the land. The party’s position should be one of making abortion safe, while recognizing its legality, and make it a less used option through education, family planning and support for adoptions. 

Cotto: Moderate and libertarian Republicans, generally speaking, believe that preserving women’s reproductive rights should be considered a bedrock value of limited government. How do you think that pro-choice policies can make a comeback within the GOP?

Rep. Kolbe: Pro-choice policies are not likely to be the dominate point of view in the Republican party for the foreseeable future, but those that hold to pro-choice principles should continue to advocate for this position within the party and not abandon the party because core issues of individual rights, fiscal and monetary policy and national security are the fundamental issues that drive most Republicans to that banner. We should continue to make the libertarian case that choice is consistent with basic Republican principles.

Cotto: Many conservationist Republicans believe that looking after the environment should be considered a bedrock value of conservatism. How do you think that pro-environment policies can make a comeback within the GOP?

Rep. Kolbe: The first great conservationist in American politics was Teddy Roosevelt, and he was Republican. Conservation is virtually the same word as conservative. It is entirely consistent with core Republican values to want to conserve the environment. But, there has to be a balance, and it will be found somewhere between the positions of hard core environmentalists and some Republicans that believe government should play no role in protecting the environment. 

Cotto: Issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage are lightning rods for extremists in both parties. Particularly in closed primaries, radical, unelectable candidates often win by campaigning on these alone. Do you suppose that this will prove to be an enduring problem?

Rep. Kolbe: It will be a continuing problem for the foreseeable future.  Open primaries, such as recently adopted in California, might well change the advantage minorities within both parties have today in pushing candidates to the right and to the left. 

Cotto: With increasing electoral support for same-sex marriage, do you believe that many of the GOP’s anti-LGBT stances will fade away? If so, might his happen in the none too distant future?

Rep. Kolbe: This is entirely a generational issue. I haven’t met a Republican under the age of 30 who doesn’t think same-sex marriage should be legal. I predict 2012 will the last year the GOP platform will advocate for a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman. And within one generation, this issue will have faded entirely from political view. Same sex marriage will be a settled fact and widely supported. 

Cotto: During the years ahead, as the LGBT community’s political lobby grows stronger, the GOP will undoubtedly need its support; both electorally and financially. What do you think the future holds for LGBT Republicans?

Rep. Kolbe: LGBT Republicans will grow stronger as this issue fades and eventually it will become so mainstream, LGBT Republicans will no longer have to be identified as a separate group within the party.

Cotto: Across the political spectrum, libertarianism is on the upswing. Specifically in the Republican Party, followers of Ron Paul are attempting to take on the establishment. Do you believe that libertarianism is a viable philosophy for governing? What do you think about the Ron Paul movement?

Rep. Kolbe: I consider myself as coming from the libertarian wing of the Republican party. But it represents a philosophical point of view that government should be less intrusive and that individual liberties and responsibilities are paramount. But it is not an absolutist prescription for governing and is not seen as such by the vast majority of people who describe themselves as ‘“libertarian Republican.”

Cotto: What was the greatest challenge of your congressional career? What was its best reward?

Rep. Kolbe: Getting elected in the first instance was the biggest challenge. In both instances—when elected to the Arizona State Senate and when elected to the U.S. Congress—I ran and won against incumbents. That is a daunting challenge.

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering about your life and career. What inspired you to seek public office?

Rep. Kolbe: When I was 15 years old, Sen. Barry Goldwater appointed me to be his Page in the U.S. Senate. I came to Washington as a teenager and a novice and found the concept of public service and elected office to be very appealing. I was hooked at the age of 15!


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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