May 12, 2010

Kyle Robbins’ first e-mail made me smile: “Can’t say I really saw this interaction coming,” he wrote.

That makes two of us, Kyle.

Last month, I spent a few days with students in the Media Fellows program at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Ind. They’re mostly Midwesterners and overwhelmingly thoughtful and funny, and sometimes they smile when they don’t quite feel like it because they were raised to give strangers the benefit of the doubt.

While I was at DePauw, I met with individual students to talk about journalism. Really the conversations just started there and then wove their way into discussions about life in general. One of the reasons I hang out with young people: They’re smarter than they know.

That’s how I met 19-year-old Kyle Robbins from Bedford, Ind.

“I’m a conservative,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said.

“I already knew that,” he said, smiling. We laughed.

Kyle makes me hopeful for the future of the Republican Party. I may lean left, but I know we need thoughtful weight on the other side to keep the boat afloat, and much of what passes for Republican politics lately is turning off a lot of young people like Kyle.

He grew up in Lawrence County, which he brags hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Baines Johnson. “When Indiana went blue for Obama, our county still went 65-35 for McCain,” he said.

“In his first e-mail to me, Kyle wrote, ‘I’d love to keep this great dialogue going.’ He can count on it.”

His father owns a successful company, and Kyle readily describes his upbringing as one of privilege. He said he wants to help others who aren’t nearly so lucky, and he has plenty of company.

“I’m part of a new movement of young people like me who are fiscally conservative but don’t doubt the sincerity of those on the other side,” he said. “We want to listen. We know we have to stop alienating groups of people. We need immigration reform, for example, but the Arizona law isn’t the way to go about it. I’m pro-life, but that also means I can’t support taking away people’s health care. Yes, I’d like to see the solution in the private sector, but it’s really hard for Republicans to look at the rest of the country and say, ‘You don’t have the right to health care.’”

As we talked, Kyle kept bringing up the notion of “compassionate conservatism.” And he meant it.

“It means being able to see the needs of others,” he said. “The far right has given conservatism a bad name. So has the tea party. Yes, I come from a privileged background. That doesn’t mean I can see the 60-year-old guy driving a broken-down car and delivering Papa John’s pizza and not feel bad. Being a conservative doesn’t mean I can’t look at him and think, ‘At his age, he shouldn’t have to do that.’”

I hesitated to write about Kyle because of an instance when I wrote a column about a conservative willing to meet me for coffee; he was attacked as a turncoat. When I shared this reservation with Kyle, he assured me he was ready.

“I realize that might happen,” he said. “I also realize that’s what’s wrong with too much of the current thinking about what it means to be a Republican. That’s old-party thinking, and a lot of us don’t agree with it.”

Kyle writes a blog for his Media Fellows class. I asked whether he’d be willing to share it on a public site so others could read what’s on his mind. He agreed.

An excerpt from his first post:

“The left has its youth movement, and our time has come to answer that call on the right. Washington isn’t listening. Why must we be the party of the rich? Why must we be the party of the silver spoon? Our fiscally and socially conservative values can and will exist, but we cannot continue to alienate the less fortunate, the socially conscious, the environmentalists. We must be a party of understanding, a group willing to work with our opponents from the opposite side to achieve the best outcome for our constituents.”

You can read more at I hope you will.

In his first e-mail to me, Kyle wrote, “I’d love to keep this great dialogue going.”

Count on it, Kyle.


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