Sen. Bob Smith: “Leaving the Republican Party, A Decision of Conscience”

Speech given to the United States Senate on July 13, 1999. Source: Congressional Record.

Mr. SMITH of New Hampshire.

Mr. President, as many of you know, it has been a very difficult period of time for me these past several days. I want to recognize the sacrifices of my wife and three children over the past several weeks as I agonized through this gut-wrenching political decision. My wife, Mary Jo, and my daughter, Jenny, and son, Bobby, and son, Jason, have had to endure the ups and the downs and the difficulties of making such a decision. I am deeply grateful to them for their support and comfort because, without them, I could not really have gotten through it all.

My first political memories are of talking to my grandfather, who was a died-in-the-wool Republican. He always said he would vote for a gorilla on the Republican ticket if he had to. I remember conversations with him about the Dewey-Truman campaign. He was obviously for Dewey. It didn’t work out very well. But I can also remember having conversations with my classmates, telling them that I, too, was for Dewey and explaining why I was for Dewey in that election.

At that time I was 7 years old. Years went by, and, in 1952, in the Eisenhower-Stevenson election, I was 11 years old. I bet a friend, who lived down the road and had a farm, a dollar versus a chicken that Eisenhower would win the election. I won, and my grandfather immediately drove me down to my neighbor’s farm to pick up the chicken I had won. The young man’s parents graciously acknowledged that I won the bet and provided me a nice barred rock hen that laid a lot of eggs over the next year or so.

In 1956, I volunteered to pass out literature for Eisenhower, and, as a college student, I worked for Nixon in 1964. But 1964 was the first election I voted in. Barry Goldwater’s campaign was the one that really sparked my conservative passions. I worked as a volunteer in the Nixon campaigns in 1968 and 1972, but it wasn’t like the Goldwater campaign. I remember walking into the booth, saying, this is a man I really believe in, and I said I really felt good about that vote.

In 1976, these conservative passions were again awakened while I worked for the conservative Ronald Reagan in the New Hampshire primaries against the incumbent President of the United States, Gerald Ford—not an easy thing to do for a lot of us who were basically grassroots idealists, if you will, who believed that Ronald Reagan should win that primary. In those days I was not a political operative; I was not a Senator; I was not a candidate; I was not an elected official. I was a teacher, a coach, a school board member, husband, father, small businessman—just an ordinary guy who cared about his country. I got involved because I cared, and I believed deeply in the Republican Party.

I came to this party on principle, pretty much initiating with Barry Goldwater but certainly finalized with Ronald Reagan. I was disappointed in Reagan’s loss in 1976 because I believed that grassroots conservatives in the party, who had worked so hard for Reagan, lost to what I considered the party elitists, the establishment, who were there for Ford because he was President, not with the same passion that was out there for Reagan.

Watching that convention in 1976, I remember those enthusiastic grassroots party members who were unable to defeat that party machinery that was so firmly behind the incumbent

President. I remember seeing the tears in their eyes, and the passion. It was a difficult decision. It was close, as we all remember—just a few delegates. That was 1976. At that time, as a result of the election, it inspired me to run for political office for the first time.

When Reagan sought the nomination again in 1980 I ran in the primary, hoping to be part of this great Reagan revolution. Reagan was pro-life. He was for strengthening our military. He was anti-Communist. He was patriotic. He brought the best out in the American people. I was excited. In all those years that Reagan was President, the criticism, the hostile questions, the political cheap shots, he rose above it all. And most of them, indeed probably all who criticized him, weren’t qualified to kiss the hem of his garment. He rose above them all. He was the best.

As a result of that, I began a grassroots campaign in 1979, and I lost by about a thousand votes with seven or eight candidates in the race, including one candidate, ironically, who was from my hometown. It was tough, but I decided to come back again in 1982, after losing, because I still wanted so much to be a part of the Reagan revolution. So I did come back in 1982. And that, my colleagues and friends, is when I had the first taste of the Republican establishment.

I had a phone call that I thought was a great sign. I had a call from the National Republican Party. Boy, was I excited. They told me that some representatives wanted to come up to New Hampshire from Washington to meet with me. They came to New Hampshire. We sat down at a meeting. It was brief. They asked me to get out of the race, please, because my opponent in the primary had more money than I did and had a better chance to win. I had been a Republican all my life, a Republican in philosophy, but that was my first experience with what we would call the national Republican establishment. I did not get out of the race. I beat my wealthy opponent in the primary, and I received the highest vote percentage against the incumbent Democrat that any Republican had ever received against him, and it was 1982, which was a pretty bad year for Republicans, as you all remember.

In 1984, several candidates joined the Republican primary again for an open seat in the Reagan landslide. Now everybody wanted it because the seat was open. I was just a school board chairman from a small town of 1,500, no political power base, no money, but I beat, in that primary, the president of the State senate, who was well known, and an Under Secretary of Commerce who was well financed. They still do not know how I did it, but it was door to door, and I fulfilled my dream of coming to Washington as part of the Reagan revolution in Congress.

I then had successful reelections in 1986 and 1988 and, of course, was elected to the Senate in 1990 and 1996. In the Reagan era, as in the Goldwater era, the pragmatists took a back seat to those who stood on principle. Idealists ruled; those who stood up for the right to life, a strong national defense, the second amendment, less spending, less taxes, less government. Man, it was exciting. Even though we were a minority in the Congress, it was exciting because Reagan was there. Principles in, pragmatism out. Man, it was great to be a Republican.

In 1988, a skeptical—including me—conservative movement rallied behind the Vice President in hopes that he would continue the revolution.

The signal that this revolution was over was when the President broke his “no new tax” pledge. We let pragmatism prevail. We compromised our pledge to the voters and our core principles, and we allowed the Democrats to take over the Government.

In 1994, idealism again came back. The idealistic wing of the party took charge. Led by Newt Gingrich, we crafted an issues-based campaign embodied in the Contract With America. We put idealism over pragmatism, and we were rewarded with a tremendous electoral victory in 1994, none like I have ever seen. I remember sitting there seeing those results come in on the House. I was happy for the Senate, but I was a lot happier for the House. Those of us who were there know how it felt.

As we moved into the 1996 elections, we again began to see this tug-of-war between the principal ideals of the party and the pragmatism of those who said we need “Republican” victories. Conservatives became a problem: We have to keep the conservatives quiet; let’s not antagonize the conservatives, while the pragmatists talked about how we must win more Republican seats. Conservatives should be grateful, we were told, because we were playing smart politics, we were broadening the case. Elect more Republicans to Congress, elect more Republicans to the Senate and win the White House. What do we get? Power. We are going to govern.

In meeting after meeting, conference after conference, the pollsters and the consultants—and I have been a part of all of this. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I have been involved in it. I am not saying I have not, but the pollsters and consultants advised us not to debate the controversial issues. Ignore them. We can win elections if we do not talk about abortion and other controversial issues, even though past elections have proven that when we ignore our principles, we lose, and when we stick to our principles, we win. In spite of all this, we continued to listen to the pollsters and to the consultants who insisted day in and day out they were right. Harry Truman, a good Democrat—my grandfather did not like him, but I did—said, “Party platforms are contracts with the people.” Harry Truman was right.

Why did we change? We won the revolution on issues. We won the revolution on principles. But the desire to stay in power caused us to start listening to the pollsters and the consultants again who are now telling us, for some inexplicable reason, that we need to walk away from the issues that got us here to remain in power. Maybe somebody can tell me why.

Some of the pollsters who are here now who we are listening to were here in 1984. Indeed, they were here in 1980 when I first ran. I had always thought the purpose of a party was to effect policy, to advocate principles, to elect candidates who generally support the values we espouse, but it is not.

Let me be very specific on where we are ignoring the core values of our party.

“We defend the constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” says the platform of the Republican Party, but vote after vote, day after day, that right is eroded with Republican support. I announced my intention to filibuster the gun control bill. Not only does it violate the Republican platform, but it violates the Constitution itself, which I took an oath to support and defend.

Then I hear my own party is planning to work with the other side to allow more gun control to be steamrolled through the Congress which violates our platform. Not only does it violate our platform, it insults millions and millions of law-abiding, peaceful gun owners in this country whose rights we have an obligation to protect under the Constitution.

The Republican platform says:

We will make further improvement of relations with Vietnam and North Korea contingent upon their cooperation in achieving a full and complete accounting of our POWs and MIAs from those Asian conflicts.

Sounds great. So I got up on the floor a short time ago and offered an amendment saying that “further improvement of relations with Vietnam are contingent upon achieving a full and complete accounting of our POWs and MIAs…..”—right out of the platform word for word. Thirty-three Republicans supported me. The amendment lost.

The platform says:

Republicans will not subordinate the United States sovereignty to any international authority.

Only one—right here, BOB SMITH—voted against funding for the U.N. I can go through a litany—NAFTA, GATT, chemical weapons, and so forth. Vote after vote, with Republican support, the sovereignty of the United States takes a hit in violation of the platform of the Republican Party and the Constitution.

The establishment of our party and, indeed, the majority of our party voted to send $18 billion to the IMF. Let me make something very clear. I am not criticizing anybody’s motives. Everybody has a right to make a vote here, and there is no argument from me on that. But I am talking about the relationship between the platform and those of us who serve.

This $18 billion came from the taxpayers of the United States of America, and it went to a faceless bureaucracy with no guarantee that it would be spent in the interest of the United States. We have no idea where this money will go and no control of it once it goes there.

Meanwhile, while $18 billion goes to the IMF, I drive into work and I find Vietnam veterans and other veterans lying homeless on the grates in Washington, DC, in the Capital of our Nation. How many of them could we take care of with a pittance of that $18 billion?

As Republicans who supposedly support tax relief for the American family, can we really say that $18 billion to IMF justifies taking the money out of the pocket of that farmer in Iowa who is trying to make his mortgage payment? Can we really say that? I do not think so.

Another quote out of the Republican platform:

As a first step in reforming Government, we support elimination of the Departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Energy, the elimination, defunding or privatization of agencies which are obsolete, redundant, of limited value, or too regional in focus. Examples of agencies we seek to defund or privatize are the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Legal Services Corporation.

That is right out of the Republican platform. If I were to hold a vote today to eliminate any of these agencies, it would fail overwhelmingly, and it would be Republican votes that would take it down. Every Republican in this body knows it.

Can you imagine how much money we could save the taxpayers of this country if we eliminated those agencies and those Departments that the platform I just quoted calls for us to eliminate? It is not what I call for; it is what our party platform calls for. Why don’t we do it? The answer is obvious why we don’t do it: because we do not mean it, because the platform does not mean it. We do not mean it.

In education, our platform:

Our formula is as simple as it is sweeping: The Federal Government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the workplace. That is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end Federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning. We therefore call for prompt repeal of the Goals 2000 and the School to Work Act of 1994 which put new Federal controls, as well as unfunded mandates, on the States. We further urge that Federal attempts to impose outcome- or performance-based education on local schools be ended.

If I were to introduce a bill on the Senate floor to end the Department of Education, to abolish it, how many votes do you think I would get? How many Republican votes do you think I would get?

If, as Truman said, it is a contract, then we broke it. Where I went to school, breaking a contract is immoral, it is unethical, and it is unprincipled, and we ought not to write it if we are going to break it. Let’s not have a platform.

Our party platform says also:

We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.

Listen carefully, I say to my colleagues.

In 1987, when President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, six Republicans voted against him, and he was rejected. What was Robert Bork’s offense? That he stood up for what he believed in, that he was pro-life? He told us. He answered the questions in the hearing. God forbid he should do that. But when President Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an ACLU lawyer who is stridently pro-abortion, only three Republicans voted no—Senator HELMS, Senator NICKLES, and myself.

Of course, all of the Republicans who voted against Bork voted for Ginsburg. I voted against Ginsburg because, as the Republican platform says, I want judges who respect the sanctity of innocent human life. I want my party to stand for something. Thirty-five million unborn children have died since that decision in 1973—35 million of our best—never to get a chance to be a Senator, to be a spectator in the gallery, to be a staff person, to be a teacher, to be a father, a mother—denied—35 million, one-ninth of the entire population of the United States of America. And we are going to do it for the next 25 years because we will not stand up. And I am not going to stand up any more as a Republican and allow it to happen. I am not going to do it.

Most interestingly, since that Roe V. Wade decision was written by a Republican, I might add, a Republican appointee, and upheld most recently in the Casey case, it is interesting there was only one Democrat appointee on the Court, Byron White, who voted pro-life. He voted with the four-Justice, pro-life minority. Five Republican appointments gave us that decision.

We are to blame. This is not a party. Maybe it is a party in the sense of wearing hats and blowing whistles, but it is not a political party that means anything.

About a week ago, my daughter, who works in my campaign office, told me the story of a 9-year-old girl whose dad called our office to say that his little daughter, 9-year-old Mary Frances—I will protect her privacy by giving only her first name—had said that she was born because of an aborted pregnancy, not an intentional one, an aborted pregnancy, a miscarriage at 22 weeks—22 weeks, 5 1/2 months—and she lived.

She is 9 years old. She said: I want to empty my piggy bank, Senator SMITH, and send that to you because of your stand for life because I know that children who are 5 1/2 months in the womb can live.

That is power.

Let me read from the pro-life plank of the Republican Party:

[W]e endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children.

Anything complicated about that? Anything my colleagues don’t understand about that?

We endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.

We are not going to apply any protections to unborn children. We will pass a few votes here, 50-49, if you can switch somebody at the last minute. I have been involved in those. Yes, we will do that, but we will not win. We are not going to commit to putting judges on the courts to get it done. Oh, no, we can’t do that because we might lose some votes. So meanwhile another 35 million children are going to die.

This year I sponsored a bill out of the platform that says the 14th amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. Do you want to know how many sponsors I have? You are looking at him. One. Me. That is it. Not one other Republican cosponsor.

In his letter to me—nice letter that it was—from Chairman Nicholson, he claims that “every one of our Republican candidates shares your proven commitment to life”—he says. Gee, could have fooled me. Then how come every candidate isn’t endorsing the bill or speaking out on the platform if they don’t want to endorse the bill?

The party, to put it bluntly, is hypocritical. It criticizes Bill Clinton, a Democrat, for vetoing partial-birth abortion and for being pro-abortion, but it does not criticize our own. It does not criticize the Republicans who are pro-choice. So why criticize Bill Clinton? Or why criticize any Democrat? We cannot get it done. We don’t say anything about those people.

How about the Governors who vetoed the bill, the partial-birth abortion bill? You know, there are a lot of fancy words in the Republican platform. Every 4 years we go to the convention and we fight over the wording. Sometimes even a nominee says: Well, I haven’t read it. At least he is being honest. Or, which is probably more the truth, we just ignore it. It is a charade. And I am not going to take part in it any more. I am not going to take part in it any more.

In the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” after his own political party has launched attacks on him for daring to raise an independent voice, Jimmy Stewart’s character is seated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and here is what he says: “There are a lot of fancy words around this town. Some of them are carved in stone. Some of ‘em, I guess, were put there so suckers like me can read ‘em.”

You ought to watch the movie. It is a good movie. It will make you feel good.

Mr. President, I have come to the cold realization that the Republican Party is more interested in winning elections than supporting the principles of the platform. There is nothing wrong with winning elections. I am all for it. I have helped a few and I have won some myself, and there is nothing wrong with it. But what is wrong with it is when you put winning ahead of principle.

The Republican platform is a meaningless document that has been put out there so suckers like me and maybe suckers like you out there can read it. I did not come here for that reason. I did not come here to compromise my values to promote the interests of a political party.

I came here to promote the interests of my country. And after a lot of soul-searching, and no anger—no anger—I have decided to change my registration from Republican to Independent. There is no contempt; there is no anger. It is a decision of conscience.

Many of my colleagues have called me, and I deeply appreciate the conversations that I have had privately with many of you on both sides, but I ask my colleagues to respect this decision. It is a decision of conscience. Millions and millions of Independents and conservative Democrats and members of other political parties have already made this decision of conscience. As a matter of fact, there are more Independents than there are Republicans or Democrats.

I would ask you to give me the same respect that you give them when you ask them to vote for you in election after election. Indeed, we win elections because of Independents.

I found a poem, written by a man by the name of Edgar Guest, which my father, who was killed at the end of the Second World War, when I was 3 years old, had placed in his Navy scrapbook in 1941, just prior to going off to war in the

Pacific—newly married about 2 1/2 years. I can imagine what was going through his mind. But he placed it in his scrapbook and highlighted it.

I am just going to quote one excerpt. The poem is entitled, “Plea for Strength.”

Grant me the fighting spirit and fashion me stout of will,
Arouse in me that strange something that fear cannot chill.
Let me not whimper at hardship.
This is the gift that I ask.
Not ease and escape from trial,
But strength for the difficult task.

Many have said that what I am doing is foolish. I have heard it from a lot of people—friends and colleagues. But you know what Mark Twain said—I think the Chaplain will like this:

I am a great and sublime fool. But, then I am God’s fool. And all His works must be contemplated with respect.

I called Senator LOTT last week personally. It was the most difficult telephone call I think I had ever made.

I told him it was my intention to continue to vote in caucus with the Republicans, if he wanted me, provided that there was no retaliatory or punitive action taken against me. He was very gracious. He didn’t like it—I don’t blame him—but he was gracious. I appreciate his understanding, and I appreciate the compassion and understanding of many of my colleagues on both sides who have spoken with me these past few days.

I made another phone call, Mr. President. I called the chairman of the Republican Party, Mr. Jim Nicholson, last week to inform him of my decision and asked him if he could please maintain confidentiality until I had a chance to make my decision public. Before I had a chance to do that—indeed, about 20 hours after I had made the call—my home was staked out in New Hampshire. Where I was going to visit friends, their homes were staked out, sometimes until late into the evening, by the media, because the chairman put out a letter attacking me personally.

I am not going to dignify the letter by reading it here on the Senate floor. I do ask unanimous consent that the letter be printed into the RECORD.

There being no objection, the letter was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE,

Washington, DC, July 9, 1999.
Hon. ROBERT C. SMITH,
Dirksen Senate Office Building,
Washington, DC.

Paid for by Friends of Senator Bob Smith

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