From left: Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Nathan Fletcher. (National Archives, Bob…)
It was Richard Nixon who brought me into the Republican fold.
He was running for president, and I had recently arrived in California from Austria, which I'd left because the European socialist mentality wasn't big enough for my dreams. Growing up, I was surrounded by kids whose greatest ambition was to one day collect a pension. I didn't intend to spend my whole life dreaming about floating on a government safety net.
One day, when Nixon was talking on the television, my liberal friend Artie translated bits of what he was saying. As I recall, he spoke about free enterprise, about less government and taxation, about the need for a strong military.
I asked what party Nixon was from. Artie said he was an imbecile Republican. "Then I will be an imbecile Republican," I said.
I've been writing my memoirs recently, and looking back at how I came to my political identity has reminded me that this election cycle marks my 44th year as a Republican. I can't imagine being anything else.
That's why I am so bothered by the party's recent loss of two up-and-coming Republicans: San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher, currently a state assemblyman, and former assemblyman and current Congressional candidate Anthony Adams, both of whom left the party to become independents. On the one hand, I respect their standing up for principle. On the other, I hate to see them go.
I'm sure they would have preferred to remain Republicans, but in the current climate, the extreme right wing of the party is targeting anyone who doesn't meet its strict criteria. Its new and narrow litmus test for party membership doesn't allow compromise.
I bumped up against that rigidity many times as governor. Not surprisingly, the party wasn't always too happy with me. But I had taken an oath to serve the people, not my party. Some advisors whose opinions I respect urged me to consider leaving the party and instead identify myself as a "decline to state" voter. But I'm too stubborn to leave a party I believe in.
It's time for the Republicans who are so bent on enforcing conformity to ask themselves a question: What would Ronald Reagan have done? He worked hard to maintain a welcoming, open and diverse Republican Party. He would have been appalled to see Republicans like Fletcher and Adams conclude that they had no other option than to leave the party.
We need to remind the Republicans who want to enforce ideological purity that if they succeed, they will undo Reagan's work to create an inclusive party that could fit many different views.
An inclusive party would welcome the party's most conservative activists right alongside its most liberal activists. There is room for those whose views, I think, make them sound like cavemen. And there is also room for us in the center, with views the traditionalists probably think make us sound like progressive softies. What's important is our shared belief in the broad Republican principles of free enterprise and small government. If we continue to fight one another without being willing to compromise, we will keep losing to big-government advocates.
We need to welcome young leaders into the party and invite them to participate in a robust debate. Republicans love the free market, so it should seem like a no-brainer that the more views we have at the table, the better our final product will be.
To succeed, Republicans need to embrace true Reaganism, and that means embracing the true Reagan, a brave and independent leader who believed in solutions and compromise.
As governor, Reagan was never afraid to buck his party. He raised taxes when he saw no other way to get California out of the red, and he created the California Environmental Protection Agency because, as strongly as he believed in eliminating unnecessary government regulation, he also saw wisdom in protecting our natural resources.
As president, Reagan worked very well with Democrats to do big things. It is true that he worked to reduce the size of government and cut federal taxes and he eliminated many regulations, but he also raised taxes when necessary. In 1983, he doubled the gas tax to pay for highway infrastructure improvements.
Today, that would be enough for some of the ideological enforcers to start looking for a "real" conservative to challenge him in a primary.
Some Republicans today aren't even willing to have conversations about protecting the environment, investing in the infrastructure America needs or improving healthcare. By holding their fingers in their ears when those topics arise, these Republicans aren't just denying themselves a seat at the table; in a state such as California, they also deny a seat to every other Republican.
The GOP's history is filled with leaders who rejected ideology in favor of seeking solutions.
Teddy Roosevelt is still a hero among environmentalists for his conservationist policies. Dwight Eisenhower believed in the value of investing in infrastructure, and we can thank him for our highway system. Nixon, who originally attracted me to the party, nearly passed universal healthcare. He also created the national Environmental Protection Agency, which some modern Republicans want to close down.
Being a Republican used to mean finding solutions for the American people that worked for everyone. It used to mean having big ideas that moved the country forward.
It can mean that again, but big ideas don't often come from small tents.
It's time to stop thinking of the Republican Party as an exclusive club where your ideological card is checked at the door, and start thinking about how we can attract more solution-based leaders like Nathan Fletcher and Anthony Adams.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the former governor of California.