Amid last week’s brouhaha over Mitt Romney’s tax returns, staunch conservative Tom Tancredo endorsed the legalization of marijuana in Colorado.
Tancredo’s support for Amendment 64, a proposed state constitutional amendment to regulate the drug much like alcohol, came as a surprise to many given his boisterous reputation as a longtime Republican lawmaker. Yet, his departure from GOP orthodoxy is hardly unique. He joins a growing list of prominent Republicans who support ending the drug war, including libertarians Ron Paul and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, and even conservative evangelical Pat Robertson.
In writing of his support for Amendment 64, Tancredo said: "I am endorsing Amendment 64 not despite my conservative beliefs, but because of them." (Meanwhile, support for Amendment 64 is up by 11 points, according to a recent poll by Survey USA and The Denver Post.)
As schisms form within the Republican Party on various social issues, including marijuana and gay marriage, Democrats must be willing to reach out to the disaffected and moderates to build coalitions around ballot initiatives and non-conventional candidates. These coalitions can lay the groundwork for electing preferential, if not ideologically pure, Democratic candidates in conventionally Republican parts of the country.
This isn't to say that former congressman Tancredo or Johnson are going to be running for office as Democrats any time soon. They won't. But the people who support these men aren't necessarily going to be the conventional GOP rank-and-file voters that the national party would like them to be.
The widely circulated "GOP purity test" from 2009 that would have barred moderate (and even conservative) Republican candidates from receiving funding—and would have disqualified Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—was one of the many signs of the collapsing of "Big Tent" thinking from the right. The issue of marijuana legalization, however, might be the match that sets the entire tent ablaze.
There are few issues that pitch hard-right social conservatives against their socially moderate to liberal libertarian counterparts in such clear terms. It is hard to find a self-identified libertarian who today supports the continued prohibition of marijuana. For libertarians, the issue is a principled one: do we trust informed citizens to govern their own lives and claim responsibility for their decisions, or do we cede that decision-making power to government?
The drug war may not be the most prescient issue for libertarian voters, but I can think of few others that highlight the philosophical conflict between these two wings of the Republican Party in such concise terms.
As the GOP grapples with these questions, it is critical that Democratic politicians and activists reach out to those who will be disillusioned by the response they receive from their one-time Republican compatriots.
They will have different values, different ideas, and different policy positions. They will also represent one of the best opportunities our generation will see in advancing some of the most important causes of our time.
Working across somewhat unconventional aisles in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon should be only the beginning. We have to be ready to work with those who want out even—and especially—if we don't see eye to eye on every single issue. While we cannot and should not gloss over the real ideological differences that do exist, those of us on the left would do well to understand the opportunity in front of us.
Zach Wahls is a sixth-generation Iowan, author of My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family, Green Bay Packers fan and a commentator on LGBT and youth issues. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.