Last week, the student-run Dartmouth Political Union hosted back-to-back events as part of its Democracy Summit series with two Republicans who were known for sometimes working across the aisle.
Former U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois, and former U.S. Sen. Rob Portman ’78, of Ohio, both focused on the extreme partisanship that they see as a threat to their party and to the democratic process. Kinzinger and Portman both opted not to seek re-election in 2022.
“I think we saw after the (2020 presidential) election, and culminating on Jan. 6, that democracy is not a guarantee,” said Kinzinger, who, along with former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, was one of only two Republicans to serve on the U.S. House Jan. 6 Committee and was one of 10 House Republicans to vote for Donald Trump’s second impeachment in the waning days of his presidency.
“This is why defending democracy has been my mission now,” said Kinzinger, whose April 21 Empowering the Reasonable Majority talk to a capacity crowd in Filene Auditorium, and more than 700 online, was also co-sponsored by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, the Dickey Center for International Understanding, the Ethics Institute, the Department of Government, the Office of the Associate Dean for the Social Sciences, and the Office of the Provost.
The conversation and question-and-answer session with Kinzinger, who served as an Air Force pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan and was later elected to six terms in the House of Representatives, was hosted by Rockefeller Center Director Jason Barabas ’93.
Portman delivered A Senate Retrospective to Dartmouth students and faculty the next day, at the Rockefeller Center, sponsored by the DPU and hosted by Herschel Nachlis, senior policy fellow and assistant director of the Rockefeller Center.
Portman defended his decision to vote against Trump’s impeachment, saying that the former president had already been voted out of office by the time the Senate took up the articles of impeachment, and expressed concern that impeachment could become a tit-for-tat exercise with each shift of Democratic and Republican control of Congress.
But he also implored the students at the Saturday event to reject the corrosive extremism in politics and in the Republican Party today. He urged Dartmouth students to embrace an honorable commitment to public service and a spirit of bipartisan compromise.
“I hope the next generation does not take the wrong message from all this and say ‘you’ve got to be partisan, you’ve got to throw out the red meat, you’ve got to be mean spirited in order to survive in politics,’ ” said Portman, who served two terms in the Senate, as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, and for more than 12 years in the U.S. House.
“I think there’s another path. I think most Americans want to see consensus,” said Portman, whose legislative achievements include passing a balanced budget agreement and welfare reform, and co-sponsoring the Respect for Marriage Act codifying same-sex marriage into federal law. His support of protections for same-sex marriage was bold not only among Republicans, but among many Democrats at the time, he said.
“I came out ahead of Hillary Clinton,” said Portman. “Which I reminded her of once. She didn’t like that.”
Both lawmakers praised Dartmouth students, and applauded the DPU specifically, for embracing open debate and diverse political views, which both see as the key to preserving a democratic future for the country.
“You are supporting good conversations across the spectrum, which I love,” said Portman, who last month founded the Portman Center for Policy Solutions with the University of Cincinnati, an academic center intended to foster civility, open and inclusive dialogue, and bipartisanship in politics.
And Kinzinger, responding to questions from a number of conservative students asking how they can find a place in the current Republican Party, urged them to remain true to their principles and engage in good faith.
“Listen, when you stand up even in asking that question, I’m sure a lot of people here, even some of the liberals, are probably saying, that’s a good person,” Kinzinger said to a student questioner.
“When that heart comes out to people. When you paint to them that you actually care, you’re not out to be cruel, you can disagree with someone on what that caring is, but they will listen. When you paint a vision for the future and not just rehash grievances, they will listen to you.”
Following his speech, Kinzinger lingered to shake hands, take selfies, and greet scores of students who lined up to meet him. One of the students in the crowd, Ella Klinsky ’26, a self-described independent and a member of the DPU, said Kinzinger’s response to conservative students feeling alienated from the Republican Party struck home.
“The idea he touched on about being ‘politically unhomed’ was a much more common sentiment than I was expecting. It’s something I definitely share in,” she said. “That there are so many politicians, people of all generations, here who are all expressing the sentiment that there’s not really a party that defines the middle ground anymore, Kinzinger did an incredible job of articulating that.”
Jessica Chiriboga ’24, DPU president and student body president-elect, said she most appreciated the willingness of both Portman and Kinzinger to consider the ideas of others.
“Part of Kinzinger’s talk was about standing for what you think is right even in the face of extreme political risk, and that theme also appeared in Portman’s discussion when he described his changed stance on same-sex marriage when his son, Will, came out in 2011,” said Chiriboga, noting that colleagues and aides warned it could cost him his political career.
“He spoke out publicly in favor of same-sex marriage and went on to co-sponsor the bill codifying it,” Chiriboga said.
“They each offered a take on what it means to stick up for truth and stick up for values. I really enjoyed that connection between the two events.”