Noticing the growing pile of rejected dresses, the saleswoman asked me what I was shopping for. I responded, “I know what I want, I just can’t seem to find it. Something conservative but cute, shorter than work length, longer than club length. I’m not opposed to a romper, but don’t really want a skirt. Help.” She laughed and asked me if I was shopping for a specific event. The words formulated in my brain but I couldn’t get them out. I didn’t want to tell her.
I couldn’t wait for the weekend reunion of my colleagues from the Bush-Cheney administration at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, but I didn’t want to say that. “A company picnic,” I said, “Nothing too riveting, but I’ll see co-workers I haven’t seen in a while.” As I looked in the mirror (having found the perfect shirt dress), I thought: Why did I say that? This event was exciting; I was going to see a former president, vice president, first lady and countless friends. When did I become so embarrassed to be a Republican?
I grew up in a conservative, Catholic family. I remember voting for President George H.W. Bush in my school’s straw ballot in the 1980s. I’ve voted mostly with the party over the years. I joined the College Republicans and planned rallies for the troops, went to seminars on entrepreneurship and volunteered for Sen. Jim Talent’s reelection campaign in Missouri. I swear I bled little red elephants. Following graduation, I worked on President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign in Florida and fell further in love with politics, the party and the process. I worked on the Presidential Inaugural Committee and was honored to receive an appointment in Bush’s administration. We even had a softball league. Some of my fondest memories are from those years; it was an incredible time to be alive. I was (and still am) truly proud to have been a part of it all.
As the years passed, though, I became more liberal on social issues, not understanding why my best friend from college couldn’t marry his longtime boyfriend. I struggled with the line between the right to life and a woman’s right to make her own decisions about what to do with her body. I read and reread the Constitution, studied the Federalist Papers and came to better understand the ideals on which our nation was founded. I quickly learned what it was like to make $30,000 a year in the District (along with the necessity of having multiple roommates).
I shifted closer to the middle, but there was still so much about the Republican Party that I loved. It was the party that fought to give more funding, better equipment and training to my husband — a Navy pilot. The party that pressed for veterans’ health reform. The party that gave us a president who delivered the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program to combat HIV in Africa. The party that encouraged and promoted the growth of small businesses.
But more than anything, it was the people. My colleagues in the Bush administration were compassionate, innovative and enthusiastic. We were men and women of various ages, demographics and backgrounds, woven together by our common belief in a president, a mission and, above all, the importance of character. The hours were long, but the years went fast. At the opening of Bush’s presidential library in Dallas three years ago, I was again surrounded by those colleagues. When President Obama was introduced, every person in attendance rose in thunderous applause. I realized then what made that group of colleagues so special: our respect for the office of the president.
Three years later, at this month’s reunion, tears came to my eyes as I listened to Bush speak about what made our country great. We fought for inclusion, not isolationism. We were patriots, not protectionists, and we worked to advance freedom, not fear.
I was proud to be a Republican. The GOP I worked for, fundraised for and fundamentally believed in put forward candidates who reflected my values. But now? I’m embarrassed to be a Republican because of who is leading in the polls. We’ve become a party that preys on the discouraged, not one that fosters hope. We’re incentivizing anger, not integrity. We tear down others to promote ourselves. If our current front-runner is the GOP candidate, I won’t vote Republican in November. I’m still stuck in that dressing room: I know what I want. I just can’t seem to find it.