Can we please have an authoritative definition of RINO? The meaning seems to change.

This article was first published in The Hill on July 16, 2021.

This is all so confusing. Back in the 1990s, everyone sort of understood that a RINO (Republican in name only) was a “liberal” — someone who would have the temerity to favor any kind of tax. “Real” Republicans graphically demonstrated the fate of RINOs in 1992 when they helped to relieve Poppy Bush of a second term for violating his no-new-taxes pledge.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

The no-new-tax pledge became Republican orthodoxy when anti-tax activist Grover Norquist descended Capitol Hill clutching a stone slab with the pledge newly inscribed in smoking letters. It was announced throughout the land that no Republican could ever thereafter support a tax increase of any nature. The slightest breach of the pledge was punishable by requiring the offender to forever bear the RINO label, making them ineligible to hold public office or to obtain discounts at Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A.

For the most part, the understanding of RINOhood remained pretty much the same until the Trump era, which has seen a substantial expansion of actions or statements that can trigger application of the label. Earlier this year, Trump called Bill Barr and Mitch McConnell “spineless RINOs” for failing to overturn the 2020 presidential election. This despite the fact that both had been slavishly loyal subjects in every other respect. Trump conferred the title on Representative Liz Cheney for her claim that Joe Biden became President on January 20. Indeed, Trump has labeled countless others as RINOs for any number of non-taxing indiscretions.

As a result of this confusion about the genus of RINO, it seemed advisable to do some research to determine exactly what makes one a member of the disfavored group. Seems the term came into use shortly after the Republican Party was formed in 1864. Starting in 1865 and continuing to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, “Republican in name only” was sporadically used for a variety of purposes, some disparaging and others complimentary.

Teddy Roosevelt was often called a RINO by Republicans frustrated with his work to bust trusts and other large concentrations of wealth, something that would certainly cause great consternation in the present GOP. After a lengthy dormant period, the term came roaring back during the Reagan years and has now reached its historic pinnacle.

Since the GOP still calls itself the Party of Lincoln and celebrates his birthday in Lincoln Day events throughout the month of February, Lincoln’s view of the essential tenets of his namesake party is the best yardstick to determine who is a real Republican and who is not. Lincoln’s party was formed to oppose the expansion of slavery. The other major party, the Democrat Party, split in 1860, with the southern Democrats supporting slavery and then seceding from the Union, sparking the Civil War. Lincoln supported freedom and civil rights for the slaves, while the southern Democrats supported insurrection and opposed civil rights for African slaves.

The two parties largely maintained these opposing views on civil rights for African Americans through the 1960s. During the 1970s, they began what turned out to be a fairly complete reversal of positions. Republicans eventually replaced all of the southern Democrats and many in the border or swing states. At present, Democrats support civil rights, including voting rights for people of color, while Republicans are in opposition.

As a young Senate staffer in that period, I watched the end of one era and the beginning of the other. My boss was Len Jordan, a conservative Republican Senator from Idaho. Jordan voted for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with 26 of his Republican colleagues, and joined 29 other Republicans in supporting the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Senate Democrats from secessionist states opposed both bills. Jordan voted against two of President Nixon’s appointees to the Supreme Court, both of whom appeared to be hostile to civil rights. Seventeen Republican Senators opposed Clement Haynesworth and 13 voted against Harrold Carswell. The southern Democrats vigorously supported both candidates.

Before Richard Nixon’s southern strategy flipped the roles of our two major parties, the two issues that defined Lincoln’s Republican Party were (1) the recognition that Americans of African origin were entitled to freedom and civil rights and (2) opposition to insurrection. In 1861, a mob of Democrats unhappy with Lincoln’s election victory sought to break into the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of electoral votes. Unlike January 6 of this year, the mob was unable to breach the Capitol, but the unhappy states then seceded and went to war with the United States. Lincoln could not have more vigorously opposed the insurrection.

Based on this history, a true Republican should be a strong supporter of civil rights and strongly opposed to insurrection. Since most present-day Republicans in Congress and many residents of secessionist states are hostile to civil rights and soft on insurrection, they are the true RINOs. So, Trump was right about Mitch being a RINO, but on different grounds. Authoritative definition established, case closed

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran, an eight-year Republican Attorney General of Idaho, a twelve-year Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, and a former Republican, often mistakenly called a RINO.