Yesterday’s guest speaker for the Mark L. Rosen Lecture Series in political science didn’t have to travel far. Jim Douglas, Vermont’s former governor who is currently teaching at Middlebury College, his alma mater, just made the quick drive up Rt. 7. “GOP RIP? How the Republican Party Can Connect with Mainstream America” was Douglas’s focus, a subject that drew a capacity crowd of students, faculty, and community members to the Livak Ballroom on the top floor of the Davis Center.
Professor Frank Bryan, who will retire at spring semester’s end, handled the honors of introducing Douglas. “Jim is the consummate politician,” Bryan said. “When we shook hands just now, he said, ‘Go easy.'” Bryan ticked off the many political offices Douglas held in his long career in Vermont politics, which started scarcely after his college graduation. Part of his success, Bryan offered, is “a profound example of how we value civility in Vermont.”
True to form, Douglas’s talk was a highly civil discourse, delivered with the careful enunciation of the radio man he once was, and lightened here and there with humor. The former governor gave his audience a fast-forward through a couple of centuries of United States and Vermont political history as parties and ideologies have shifted across time. The table set for the title of his talk, Douglas then described the current political weather for the Republican party, and, no surprise to anyone, the forecast isn’t sunny. “There are a lot of souls being searched,” he said.
Suggesting his recent role as a teacher may have something to do with the packaging of his message, Douglas described a potential plan of action for the GOP that would work from “the three R’s.” Telling the audience that all of the steps would be difficult to achieve, Douglas said they are essential to reinvigorating the party.
Respect: Within the Republican ranks, party members must come to respect a diversity of opinion.
Reach Out: Noting the lack of support from African-American and Hispanic voters and other demographic challenges, Douglas said, “We must embrace more Americans and encourage them to join our ranks.”
Relevant: “We need to be discussing jobs, economic issues and not focusing on social issues where people should be able to have diverse opinions.”
Also, speaking to the American public’s frustration with Congress, Douglas suggested two key reforms. First, the former governor said that how districts are drawn and redrawn, gerrymandering, needed to be addressed and made more equitable. Second, Douglas said that though he has long opposed the idea of term limits for senators and congressmen, he thought the time had come to end the advantages of incumbency and refresh a system that has too many legislators “breathing the stale air of the Capitol” for too long.
“When surveys show that the American people are more comfortable with a colonoscopy or head lice than they are with the U.S. Congress, it’s time we tried something different,” Douglas said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.