Bill's Run

PBS Premiere: June 29, 2004Check the broadcast schedule »

Overview: Mommy, What's a RINO?

It is a cliché to note that American politics is becoming increasingly polarized, but it's also true. A range of issues, from abortion to school funding to corporate taxation, divides members of both major parties. The Republican Party has called itself the "big tent" party, in which conservatives with a variety of views can find a home. But the last forty years have been marked by an expanding population of evangelical Christians who support bans on abortion and gay marriage, and Reaganite Republicans who support lower taxes and smaller government. It is understandable, then, that a new term has entered the political vocabulary that reflects this struggle to define what constitutes a "real" Republican. That label is 'Republican In Name Only,' or more popularly, the RINO.

A RINO is a Republican characterized by insufficient loyalty to certain conservative principles. Since the first RINO was labeled in 1994, the population has flourished in a variety of environments and at all levels of politics. There's even a group that maintains their own "RINO Watch" online. Because the species was only recently identified, and the variety of political animals is vast, readers may understandably wonder how to tell a RINO from a "real" Republican. For those readers, a few simple guidelines, with examples:

RINOs are in the eye of the beholder
No politician defines himself or herself as a RINO. The term is reserved for others -- for those who demonstrate inadequate adherence to the prevailing party line. The 2004 Republican senatorial primary in Pennsylvania offers an example: four-term senator Arlen Specter faced a stiff challenge from Representative Pat Toomey. In a series of television ads, Toomey painted the pro-choice, anti-Clinton-impeachment voting Specter as a RINO, despite the fact that Specter was endorsed by the Republican Party leadership and President Bush.

RINOs have natural camouflage abilities
In the field, a politician may exhibit many of the markings of an ordinary Republican -- a background in business, conservative views on foreign policy, and a long history of supporting the Republican Party itself. When cornered, however, the RINO will reveal himself; sometimes by expressing reservations about the wisdom of tax cuts, a pro-choice stance, or by a willingness to expand government social services. Many prominent Republicans have been identified as RINOs, including Arizona Senator John McCain, former New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman, and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Republic / GOP logo collage with campaign signsThe only thing Republican is the name--a selection of parodies from

RINOs are a relatively young species
Venture capitalist Richard Riordan, elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, was the first RINO to be publicly identified. One year after his election, he drafted a budget for the city that managed to increase spending without cutting taxes or laying off city workers. Democrats and many others in the city were pleased, but Republicans who had supported Riordan's opponent in the primaries saw a RINO in elephant's clothing.

RINOs are descendants of prominent early Republicans
Teddy Roosevelt and former vice-president Nelson Rockefeller are the forebears of today's RINO. Both men took a hawkish view of America's role in the world, combined with a patrician sense of obligation; a responsibility to use government means to make America great. Roosevelt established the national park system, crusaded against corporate trusts, and established the Food and Drug Administration. Rockefeller, scion of one of America's richest families, first earned public attention leading the massive public development of Rockefeller Center in New York City. If Roosevelt and Rockefeller were around today, they would likely be classified as RINOs. The term "Rockefeller Republican" has come to mean a GOP politician with liberal views on domestic issues and conservative views on foreign policy. In the 21st century, these moderate Republicans have been called a "dying breed."

RINOs are persistent
Rockefeller Republicans are a "dying breed" because they are being voted out of office, in favor of moderate Democrats or, in some cases, abandoning the party altogether. Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords quit the GOP in 2001, citing a lack of moderation. Although some in the party's right wing would prefer to purge such moderates, the ideal of the big tent lives on; the Republican party continues to attract fiscal conservatives with socially liberal views. California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City's mayor Michael Bloomberg - both of whom have been called RINOs - are two such examples.

Politics in America is not a pastime for ordinary people. Although Aristotle referred to man as the political animal, the philosopher might as well have defined politics as the realm of life in which humans are turned into beasts. The elephant and the donkey have officially symbolized the two major parties for more than a century. Politics-watchers are familiar with hawks, doves, and scapegoats; not to mention horses that are dark, ducks that are lame, and dogs that won't hunt. Scanning a list of the well-worn phrases and political clichés that appear on editorial pages is like strolling through a petting zoo where all the animals look overworked.

RINOs are the latest addition to the political bestiary, and, perhaps, a sign of things to come. Although there are few confirmed sightings, and little documentary evidence, a few observers have tentatively identified DINOs, or "Democrats In Name Only," in the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Characterized by insufficient loyalty to certain liberal principles, the DINO is currently a rare species. In time, however, an increasingly polarized nation could see DINOs begin to roam the earth.

Daniel McDermon is a writer living in New York City.