If the Republicans -- not to mention their bedrock supporters, such as evangelical Christians, neoconservatives and others -- do not grasp the Obama moment, and then rise to the occasion, when it comes to understanding the significance of having the first black American to become an authentic presidential aspirant, they will have doomed themselves to political obscurity and moral opprobrium forever.
The Republican Party would not be where it is today or have dominated American politics for the last 30 years, if it had not been for my late evangelical leader father Francis Schaeffer. Dad more or less invented the Protestant pro-life movement by giving it its intellectual basis; before that, evangelical Protestants mostly stayed out of politics. Along with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Dr. Dobson and the other handful of "founding fathers" of the religious right (including to a lesser extent me before I dropped out of the movement), back in the 70s and 80s we empowered and energized a big chunk of today's Republican base.
So what I have to say here about Senator Obama to my old Republican friends comes from an inside perspective. It's this: beware how you deal with the Obama moment. What you do now is going to define you far more than you'll define Obama. He is about to become a major part of American history. You are about to be written off forever ... if you get this wrong.
As a former Republican activist who, as late as 2000, was campaigning for John McCain, today I am a dedicated supporter of Senator Obama for president. Yes, I changed my mind. But that isn't the point. My point here is to ask how the Republicans will define themselves by the means they use to try to define and defeat Obama.
My motivation? It isn't to help Republicans win. I want them to lose the election. But there are bigger fish to fry. For instance the peace and goodwill that we will all need to return to in order to function as Americans after this election. America matters more than party. And it is America that will be damaged by the self-destruction of the Republican Party. We need a viable opposition.
Just to be clear: I'm not saying that everyone must vote for Obama, or that people who don't are racists, evil or dumb. I am saying that how the Obama candidacy is treated and what tactics are ued will define Obama's opponents, not him. And this year's election will either help build up America or tear it apart.
While Republicans are concentrating on winning in November it seems to me that they have lost sight of the fact that this moment has far greater significance than whatever happens in electoral politics this year. If you listen to the silly chatter on FOX News, or talk radio, or read the likes of Dr. Dobson, Pat Buchanan and William Kristol and absorb their sophomoric take on Obama, his patriotism, his flag pin, his wife's patriotism, etc., etc., the question arises: do they know what planet they are on or what century they are in?
How Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters react to Obama's candidacy will define us all in ways that today can hardly be imagined. While most Republicans (and many Democrats too) seem to be concentrating on present and narrowly defined victory, the real issue is how we all will be perceived in the future. Our great, great grandchildren will pass judgment on us, and so will the world.
Simply put: Republican strategists who think that business-as-usual -- i.e., the slanderous politics of the past 30 years -- will take care of matters this time around are deluded. Worse than that, they will doom the reputation of the Republican Party and turn it into a marginal footnote of American history if they keep trivializing this historic event. That is too bad because, as I said, we need a two party system.
All over the world people who have thought ill of America are now thinking better of us, simply because Obama has become a serious major party candidate. All over the world our country, which has sunk to its lowest level ever in the public's view under Bush, suddenly looks immeasurably better because we have grown up enough to embrace a black candidate, our fraught and sordid racial history notwithstanding. We might even be setting an example in spite of ourselves. All over the world people who have despaired of their old friend America are taking a second look.
In our own country millions of new voters, especially young voters, are coming into the political process that before Obama, they had either ignored or written off. And the African-American population that has been the victim of the racism which has dragged on and on relentlessly, is taking a deep breath and considering a new future.
Senator Obama is not just a "historic black candidate." He turns out to be a profoundly inspirational person. For a start he is not beating the drum for fear as the means to motivate votes. This is a huge change from Bush and the paranoid distrust of the "other" that the Bush years will be remembered for. There are echoes of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt in the measured and sane Obama candidacy. There is the best of the American story in his personal history. The man radiates a steady decency, compassion and profound wisdom that is rare at any time in politics, but following the embarrassment of George W. Bush comes like cold water to those stuck in an interminable desert.
This is the context of the Obama candidacy. And what it symbolizes long-term is so far and away more important than the election results in November, that the mere politics of the moment is almost an insult to the sea change that Obama's candidacy represents.
If the world gets it, if Obama inspires the French, the British, the Egyptians, the Germans, the Indonesians, the Irish, even the Chinese, but Republican operatives and strategists don't "get it," then I make this prophecy: the Republican Party will look so small and yes, so pathetically racist, that by the end of the day we will barely have a two-party system left in America. No one will forgive the Republicans (or angry Clinton Democrats) if they come out of this moment looking as if they missed the point of what America means.
The Republicans are going to look as out of touch a few years from now as did the isolationists and "America First" folks after World War II. Before the war they were active in the prewar run up and they seemed very much in the game, even relevant. But the isolationists didn't understand the fact that the world had changed and left them and their interests stranded. The globe was smaller than they figured and they marginalized themselves. Forces beyond their political control were unleashed on them. And by the end of World War II the entire world map was redrawn. There was no room left for them on the political map either. They went from serious to joke status in a heartbeat.
That's the fate that awaits the Republicans today if they persist in trivializing Obama. As they prepare their slimy little Rovian attacks on Michelle Obama, and her "lack of patriotism," on Senator Obama and his "un-American" former pastor, and as the racial innuendo and the use of Obama's middle name, etc., etc., morphs into an updated version of "swift boating" the Republicans are more or less signing their death warrant. They are about to become a minority party perceived as controlled by silly half-educated white men, cranks, racists and windbags. The writing is on the wall. If fools like the FOX News folks, are the face of the Republican Party in this election the Republicans are done. It will not be forgotten that the Republicans pissed on a shining moment of opportunity and could do no better than snicker at a moment when the rest of the world looked at the Obama moment in awe and renewed respect for America.
Obama changes everything. Those who understand this and embrace the facts may live to fight another day in whatever political party. Those who don't -- be they Republicans or Hillary Clinton's disappointed and angry Democrats -- instantly make themselves part of a past that will never be escaped or lived down.
Here is what the Republicans and others can do to come out of this contest alive and well with their future bright whether they win or lose this election.
1. Categorically repudiate and denounce the sort of slime attacks that are already being mounted against Obama and his wife until they stop.
2. Refuse to go along with the snickering half-wits at places like FOX News. They will take you down with them into well deserved oblivion.
3. Pay homage to what Obama means to America and what his candidacy stand for in the same way that Obama pays homage to McCain's Vietnam War service and do so often and where it counts.
4. Decide now that it would be better to lose this election than win a race-based or innuendo-based pyrrhic victory that decimates the Republican Party's (or angry Clinton fans') reputation forever.
5. Debate the issues, not the man. The point is not to belittle Obama. You can't. He's already a giant of American history and became such just by getting this far in a country that was still lynching black men in our parents' lifetimes. But that doesn't mean that you have to agree. Say that his tax hikes will hurt. Say that his medical coverage is going to cost. There are real issues. Call him on those if you will. And experience is a legitimate issue too. But stay out of the slime.
6. Don't be too clever by half. Play even the hint of the race card, no matter how cutely or while pretending innocence, and you're toast.
How the Republican Party deals with this moment and whether it looks to a larger future than simply winning by any means, will not only say more about the Republicans than it says about Obama but will either give the Republicans a place in the future or relegate them to a discredited past from which they will never return. That will happen even if McCain wins. The victory will be short-lived.
Members of the Democratic Party who have America's best interests at heart can only hope that the half of our country we call red state America doesn't self-destruct. If it does it will make us all smaller. We all live here, remember?
Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back.