New England Used To Have Several Republicans In Congress. Now There's Only One
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And I'm Ari Shapiro in Manchester, N.H., where President Trump made a prediction last night to an arena crowd.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are going to win New Hampshire in a landslide.
SHAPIRO: A Trump win here in New Hampshire would be notable because it's been a rough couple of decades for Republicans in the Northeast. New England's congressional delegation used to be split pretty evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Today, the New England delegation has just one Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Charlie Bass has seen that change firsthand. He represented New Hampshire in Congress from 1995 to 2007 and again from 2011 to 2013. He sat down with me to talk about the shift.
CHARLIE BASS: To give you a down-home example, the town immediately north of where I live, Hancock, N.H., was the most Republican town in the whole state of New Hampshire. It's now got a majority of Democrats registration. My hometown of Peterborough, one town south - suburban, wealthy - I used to carry it 2 1/2-to-1. I lost it the last time I ran. One...
SHAPIRO: So what was the big thing that changed?
BASS: ...Well, one town to the south of Peterborough, Jaffrey, a mill town, strong Republican...
BASS: ...Now, and the next town down, Rindge, is also a very strong Republican town. What's changed is the definition of a Republican.
SHAPIRO: What happened to all of those New England voters who were Republicans for decades and now no longer vote with the party?
BASS: They're registered independents, and they're looking for an excuse to come back to the Republican Party under the right circumstances. They're disenchanted with the idea that we are concerned about keeping people out of the country, that we don't believe that free trade is the mecca for economic growth and prosperity.
SHAPIRO: So you're describing issues where the Republican Party itself has moved.
BASS: That's correct.
SHAPIRO: George W. Bush talked about a humane approach to immigration. He talked about free trade deals. President Trump takes a different position on these issues.
BASS: Under Donald Trump, you cannot define the Republican Party as being compassionate, a big tent or particularly tolerant.
SHAPIRO: New England has always had a distinct brand of Republicanism that leans a little bit more libertarian. New Hampshire is the live free or die state. Do you think that the Republican Party right now has room for the brand of Republicanism that you represented, where it's low taxes, pro-gun rights, pro-abortion rights, that kind of hybrid?
BASS: No, not now. I don't think I could be elected - I don't think I could win a nomination. But times change. And fundamentally, our economy is strong. We're going - we heard in the State of the Union address about how everything is going so well. Well, he's right. And the Democrats ought to keep in mind that establishment Democrats are worried about electing a socialist or a liberal because they may wind up being very much less wealthy than they are today. And that's going to keep Democrats home in November if they elect - if they nominate somebody who's very liberal. On the other hand, there are people who can't vote for Donald Trump because he's proceeded - he's not being honest and so forth. That group, I think, is going to be smaller than the group of Democrats that don't vote because they are worried about their pocketbooks.
SHAPIRO: Do you see what's happened to Republicans in New England as somehow the mirror image of what has happened to Democrats in the Deep South?
BASS: Interesting question. Yes, but on different issues. And the Democrats' big transformation occurred in the '70s.
SHAPIRO: The issue was race.
BASS: Yes, precisely, and other issues, as well. I think starting in 1994, there was a paradigm shift in Republicans. And I can remember working with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, trying to figure out how we could save the Republicans that were in office in the Northeast. And it wasn't going to happen.
SHAPIRO: What was the parallel issue in the Northeast, do you think?
BASS: I think the ideological agenda. The republic - libertarianism, if you will, does not lend itself to ideological conservatism such as abortion, the life issue...
SHAPIRO: The culture war.
BASS: ...The culture wars, precisely. The tent is very small right now, and it's not easy for Republicans such as myself to feel that the party really represents me. But fundamentally, it does. It's just that things have changed a little bit, hopefully (laughter) for the short term.
SHAPIRO: Have you ever questioned whether you are still a Republican? I know you still identify as one, but have you ever had doubts about that?
BASS: No, I haven't because I've never been able to agree with every Republican on every issue. I can remember going to the White House because I had frequent disagreements with George W. Bush. And we would have a discussion, and I'd say, Mr. President, I'm not moving on this issue. And he would say, all right, all right. If we agreed on everything, there wouldn't be any reason for one of us. And so that is an indication of...
SHAPIRO: That is the exact opposite of Donald Trump's approach, which is that if you don't agree with me, you're out.
BASS: Correct. Exactly. That's right. It's very intolerant. And I think that's regrettable, but I also don't think that it is permanent. And this president may have issues with a number - with a large bloc of Republicans, but ultimately, his presidency has been good for the country and good for the economy. And he has changed the paradigm of the power structure in Washington and in the judicial system - impacts for decades to come.
SHAPIRO: Former New Hampshire Congressman Charlie Bass, thank you for coming into the studio and talking with us today.
BASS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.