On Sunday, U-T San Diego implied in an editorial that Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher’s integrity as a Marine was in question after he abandoned the Republican Party in the middle of his run for mayor.

While that point seemed to get the most attention in the discussion the editorial provoked, it was the part right before that I found most intriguing (emphasis added):

And in leaving the Republican Party as he did, criticizing it as equally to blame for political dysfunction, he essentially left his colleagues behind, harming Republicans running for office. Does this demonstrate a Marine’s loyalty?

I asked U-T editorial page editor Bill Osborne, over Twitter, how Fletcher was hurting other local Republican candidates. His answer: “… the editorial was saying he damaged the GOP brand.”

The paper also says he’s got some questions to answer.

Fletcher has decided to hit the U-T back, saying he already answered them in an interview shortly after leaving the party.

His campaign released the audio and a transcript of a March 29 on-the-record interview he did with the editorial board. Here’s a link to the transcript of it, produced by Fletcher’s campaign team. And here’s audio (mp3).

The conversation opens a window into the newspaper’s worry about the Republican Party and a broader confusion in the community between party and principle.

As people discuss Fletcher’s defection from the party, these two concepts seem to have become interchangeable. They are not.

And if we can understand them better, we might be able to understand what’s going on.

Take this question from U-T editor Jeff Light to Fletcher during the interview:

I think this whole thing is interesting. Let me ask you this. I think you’ve put us sort of in a tough position. We as an editorial board do not want to see Bob Filner get through to the general election, because the environment around the general election is much more favorable to Bob Filner. So we certainly want to keep that from happening. On the other hand, some of the things you said, it was a little more than just ‘hey I just want to be an independent voice.’ And I think this was what Pete Wilson was reacting to. It was sort of that message that ‘well, the Republican Party is bad.’ How can we get behind you given that we’ve got a lot of Republican backing and Republican tradition? I think that puts us in a tough position.

Fletcher’s response:

Well I think you’ve got to go and look at what I actually said. And what I said is that I’m rejecting the partisan environment of today. People say ‘well did you ever consider becoming a Democrat.’ I didn’t. Because I think there’s unwillingness on that side as well to step out and solve problems, whether we’re talking about pensions or managed competition or some of these other types of issues.

And the other thing is that there’s not one position of mine that’s changed. There’s not one issue that’s changed. There’s not one principle that’s changed. The only thing that’s changed is the party label. And folks that have a tremendous amount of consternation in the move, it’s more of an adherence to that label than to what I represent and what I’ve been. I’m the exact same person today as I was yesterday as I was the day before.

Many folks have struggled with this point and say things like “But he’s still a Republican! His wife worked for George W. Bush!” Even Tony Krvaric, the chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party, put it this way in a recent U-T story: “This is somebody who was a partisan Republican and is trying to sell himself as something different.”

Actually, a partisan, with its strict definition, is exactly what he no longer is.

A party in this country is a collection of individuals and interests who organize together in order to gain power. Here, our parties are not ideologically pure.

What Fletcher was doing was not saying he was becoming more liberal or more like the Democratic Party. What he was just saying was that he was sick of working with the Republican Party and trying to please them.

And what the U-T appears to be saying, in many, many words, is that it is now partisan above other considerations. I know, it’s not exactly news that the U-T prefers Republicans. But it wasn’t that long ago that the paper endorsed a Democrat named Mike Aguirre for city attorney. It has endorsed others.

Fealty to the GOP would be a new litmus test for support from the paper.

Liberals who are suspicious that Fletcher has not actually become more progressive in the last two months should be. He insists time and time again, in this extraordinary discussion with the U-T, that he has not changed his positions.

We often use “Republican” and “Democrat” as shorthand to explain someone’s views and principles. And that means that when someone leaves the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, we assume they’re trying to communicate that they’ve changed their minds.

But when you think of parties as just teams — coalitions of people trying to support each other to gain power and influence — this all makes a lot more sense.

Understanding that should help ease the U-T’s worries. Instead, though, they are saying this one lone wolf is able to harm the GOP and its candidates. Ostensibly, that means he’s hurting San Diego in their view.

That would also mean, though, that they don’t think the party is very strong. After all, the GOP has millions of critics. Why would a new one cripple it?

In fact, openly fretting that Fletcher is able to hurt the party this much demonstrates far more contempt for the GOP brand and its resilience from the U-T than anything I’ve seen Fletcher say.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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