Is the Party Over?
Atlantic Unbound has invited The Atlantic's Jack Beatty and a panel of distinguished commentators to take up this question

July 2, 1998 -- Round Three: Concluding Remarks

June 25, 1998 -- Round Two: Responses

June 18, 1998 -- Introduction and Round One

Four years after winning control of the House for the first time in forty years, the Republican Party is obsolescent. That's the argument made by Christopher Caldwell, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, in The Atlantic Monthly's June cover story, "The Southern Captivity of the GOP." Charting the party's loss of long-time Republican issues to the hardly robust Democrats, Caldwell points to a 1997 Washington Post poll in which voters trusted the Democrats more to handle the economy, balance the budget, deal with crime, and, incredibly, hold down taxes. Caldwell calls the issues remaining for the Republicans to run on in the fall elections a "grab bag ... dredged up from 1988: school choice, the Strategic Defense Initiative, tort reform, abortion. Worthy issues all, but none of them capable of winning elections."

The Republican "revolution" of 1994, Caldwell writes, swiftly lost momentum. The new Congressional majority alienated swing voters with their willingness to shut down the government. Worse, even in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing the Republicans were visibly eager to please the National Rifle Association, making the GOP appear soft on terrorism. Worse yet, in Newt Gingrich they found themselves saddled with a leader who quickly became the "one [politician] in American political life less popular than the IRS," to quote a Clinton-Administration jibe cited by Caldwell. "Under Gingrich's leadership," Caldwell writes, "the Republicans have not merely replaced the Democrats of the 1980s; they have become them" -- a party opposed to campaign-finance reform because it needs PAC contributions and soft money to fund its newly won "incumbency-protection system." Promising political reform, the Republican "revolution" left the systemic corruption of the Democratic status quo undisturbed.

Above all, with its entire House and Senate top leadership drawn from the South, the GOP has begun to look more and more like a sectional party. This new southern base, Caldwell argues, hurts the GOP elsewhere in the country (notably in California, once a key Republican state in presidential elections), because the "southern morals business" -- the militantly conservative Christianity of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and others -- is electoral poison beyond the southern and mountain states.

Political demography is turning against the GOP. The most recent presidential election saw young people and Hispanics -- the latter the nation's fastest growing and, Caldwell points out, most strategically situated minority -- voting strongly Democratic, in both cases reversing 1980s trends. In another gloomy indicator for the GOP the 1990 Census revealed that a majority of voters now live in suburbia, making it the new battleground of presidential politics. And Caldwell notes a gathering tension between the suburbs and the South, which were the two props of the GOP presidential victories of the 1980s.

All in all, these trends are worrying for the GOP. So worrying, in fact, that our first question for our Roundtable guests is, quite simply, Is this party over? We'd like you to ponder that question in particular -- and, if you see fit, these others:

  • Is the above demographic survey unduly pessimistic? What are the arguments against this analysis of political demography?
  • James Dobson, who claims to have a huge and highly susceptible following, is the current embodiment of the "southern morals business." What role is he likely to play in the congressional elections this year? What about the presidential election in 2000? Why not give us a worst- and a best-case scenario, from the point of view of the GOP, on Dobson?
  • The political scientist Martin Wattenberg has found that one predictor of victory in the general elections of the past thirty years is party unity: the candidate who most convincingly unifies his party behind him before the general election has the best chance of victory. Using this logic, which of the possible GOP contenders in 2000 seems likeliest to unify his party? Give us some rationales or scenarios on how a candidate might rejuvenate the Reagan coalition. What issue or issues, in short, can unify Republicans today as the Cold War and tax cuts unified them yesterday, while also appealing to swing voters?

July 2, 1998

Round Three: Concluding Remarks


What do you think?

See what other readers have to say about the future of the Republican Party in the Body Politic forum -- and share your views.

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One: Opening Remarks -- posted on June 18, 1998

Round Two: Responses -- posted on June 25, 1998

Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- posted on July 2, 1998

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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