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HROUGHOUT the 1980s the Reagan coalition -- economic and social libertarians on the one hand, and largely Christian "social issues" voters on the other -- were in rough balance. If anything, southern Christians were the low men on the Reaganite totem pole, coddled far less than tax activists in the prosperous coastal cities. That Reagan paid only lip service to pro-life activists during their annual Washington marches still rankles the party's southern wing. Although he several times sent a message by phone hookup, he never once greeted them on the Mall.
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, disputes that the two wings were ever at odds, and insists that libertarians and moralists can still cohabit. And since Norquist is a key -- if not the key -- adviser to Newt Gingrich, his interpretation can be taken as a semi-official Republican understanding of what's left of Ronald Reagan's electorate. "The Reagan coalition is the Leave Us Alone coalition," Norquist says. "Tax activists want their paychecks left alone. Pro-family people want their kids left alone. Ralph Reed's constituents are not interested in running other people's lives. They don't care what odd people do in San Francisco on Saturday afternoon."
For his part, Reed, formerly the executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a Georgia-based political and public-affairs consultant, thinks the two wings get along as well as ever. Looking at the Republican field for President in 2000, he says, "Traditional supply-siders like Steve Forbes are enthusiastically embracing the social dogma of the party. Lamar Alexander is moving to the right, guys like John Ashcroft are picking up steam, John Kasich is talking about faith in God. I see a holistic message developing." To an extent Reed is right: this is not 1963 or 1964, when the Rockefeller wing and the Goldwater wing fought an intraparty civil war. Yet there is something more troubling going on. Every Republican candidate now has to "make his bones," to prove his good faith by declaring his unequivocal willingness to alienate the "elites" of the country. Describing the Christian right to a reporter last fall, the former Washington congressman Randy Tate, who is now the executive director of the Christian Coalition, said, "They don't just want to be given crumbs off the table and taken for granted." Far from proving Republican tolerance, the rapprochement Reed points to is merely the sound of the Republicans' cosmopolitan wing crying "Uncle."
This southern takeover is part of a natural, if paradoxical, transformation. It parallels the way the Goldwater debacle of 1964 destabilized the Democratic Party -- by sending alienated northern Republican progressives into the Democrats' ranks. These progressives joined with northern urbanites to forge a party that was more to their liking, though it was too liberal for the Democratic Party's stalwart southern conservatives -- and, eventually, too liberal for the nation as a whole. In like fashion, Democratic excesses since the seventies may have destabilized the Republican Party by chasing those southerners into the fold, transforming the Republican Party into a machine that is steadily becoming too conservative for the country.
There has always been tension between the Republicans' constituent wings. What long masked it was the Cold War. The Reaganite party was never a two-part but always a three-part coalition, of social conservatives, economic conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks. The hawks' group was minuscule, but it happened that their passion (anti-communism) was shared by Christians and capitalists alike. This was a passion that Democrats -- with a few notable exceptions, including Senator Scoop Jackson, of Washington -- were renouncing by the mid-1970s. Foreign-policy hawkishness became a permanent electoral advantage for the Republicans, but just as important, it became the party's internal glue. When the Cold War ended, the coalition lost its last point of common ground. As one Republican consultant says, "In 1992 we go to Houston, and Jack Kemp and Pat Buchanan look up at one another and say, 'What the hell are you doing in my party?'"
The Republicans have been, in a word, "McGovernized." We think of McGovernization as a Democratic problem, largely because George McGovern was a South Dakota Democrat when he led a commission that reformed party structures three decades ago, increasing the importance of state primaries and thus shifting power away from compromise-oriented national conventions. Not incidentally, McGovern went on to suffer electoral humiliation in the first presidential election conducted under the reforms. The Republicans, too, soon adopted boss-proof electoral rules. These reforms were implemented just when money and television were driving politics away from "local" issues (that is, bread-and-butter ones) and toward "national" issues (that is, ideological ones). One party was bound to win and one to lose. In retrospect -- and it was only the aftermath of Richard Nixon's disgrace that blinded people to it at the time -- the ideological configuration of the country in the 1970s gave the Republican right a monumental advantage over the Democratic left. What was the 1976 Reagan movement if not a McGovernized groundswell?
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Overideologization is beginning to work against the Republicans. At the 1996 convention Christian conservatives moved to make their intraparty advantage permanent and institutional, much as racial and social liberals had done before the 1972 Democratic convention. Control over appointments to the Resolutions Committee was wrested from the national chairman and given to the (largely hard-line) delegates. Organized interest groups of the values right thus grew strong enough to bend the party to their own interests, at the expense of the party's. An unstoppable McGovernesque radicalization was under way.
At a January Republican National Committee meeting near Palm Springs delegates defeated -- handily, but only after much effort -- an initiative to withhold campaign funds from Republicans who didn't oppose late-term, "partial-birth" abortion. It should be noted that three quarters of Americans back Republicans on the merits of the issue -- it may be their single best issue at present. But the vote was not about partial-birth abortion, because there are only a half dozen Republican congressional candidates in the entire country who would have been affected by the initiative. If more evidence were necessary that sectional interests trump party ones, last fall the National Right to Life Committee began running ads against pro-life congressmen, including the Republican Zach Wamp, of Tennessee, for supporting a campaign-finance reform that the NRLC feared would threaten its ability to raise money.
From the archives:
"Politicians have one thing in common with voters: they don't want to think about the abortion issue. They want to demobilize the debate and get the issue off the agenda. That is especially true for Republicans."
At the same time, the abortion issue illustrates that the problems of a
southernized Republican Party are not simply a matter of how far right the
party is. Opinion on abortion has swung sharply toward the Republican position
since the controversy over partial-birth abortions began. A January ABC poll
found that the statement "A woman should be able to get an abortion if she
decides she wants one no matter what the reason" drew the lowest level of
support (50-47) it has since early in the Reagan Administration. Even so, polls
asking Americans, in effect, which party they trust more on the subject aren't
budging. Why not? Many Republican politicians complain off the record about
party rhetoric on social issues. It's not the issue of abortion that's driving
people away, they argue, so much as it is the broader cultural claims of those
who put it forward.|
In this sense, conservative Christians are to the Republican Party what blacks were to the Democrats in the 1970s: its most loyal troops, the source of its most talented activists, its moral core. For that reason they are also the main source of radicalization and overreach. The activists who in the 1970s married the Democratic Party to a caricature of black interests burdened the party with busing, affirmative action, leniency on crime -- all unpopular issues. As voters began to drift away, Democrats resorted to ever-more-preposterous accusations of Republican "racism." From there it was easy for the Republicans to taunt the Democrats into pursuing policies that taxed the patience even of moderate voters. Attacks on the Democrats for coddling "welfare queens" worked politically less because of their substance than because they goaded the Democrats into defending the worst kind of welfare abuse.
From the archives:
"When Americans talk about government spending, about welfare, about crime, about unemployment, or about values, they are to some degree also talking about race. Race is the subtext of American politics."
But there is an easily overlooked difference between southern Christian
Republicans and black Democrats -- or any Democratic group, for that matter. The
great Democratic electoral liability has always been that the party is a
congeries of constituencies -- blacks, the welfare-dependent, Jews, union
members, feminists, teachers -- the loss of any one of which can cost an
election. None of the individual Democratic constituencies can produce a
commanding majority on its own, but for that reason none is particularly
frightening, either. Southern-style Christians are a powerful bloc in a way
that none of the Democratic blocs is. Ed Goeas, the president of the Tarrance
Group, a Republican polling organization, routinely includes in his polls the
question "Has something happened in your life that has caused a recommitment to
Christ?" Forty-three percent of respondents answer yes. This is a big enough
bloc to take over not just a party but a country.
The bet that Republicans are making is that the South will add congressional seats and electoral votes faster than the rest of the country grows alienated from the party's southern message. Most members of the party are content with this arrangement, but they're also hoping that the South can be transformed enough to keep voters elsewhere from fleeing the party in droves. "I think the South is a new South," says the Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg, of California. "You'll see southern cities that are more progressive."
"On the other hand," Steinberg admits, "the North doesn't exactly realize that."
AGAIN, it is simplistic to see Republican politics as merely too far right, particularly at a time when the difference in total spending between Clinton's and Congress's budget proposals, for instance, is just a fraction of a percentage point. But it's understandable that voters have found Republicans "frightening," given the dovetailing of southern Republican anti-government rhetoric with that of right-wing terrorists. From this standpoint the two signal events of the 104th Congress were the Oklahoma City bombing, on April 19, 1995, and the government shutdowns of 1995-1996, advanced in a belligerent rhetoric of "revolution" that, according to Goeas and other pollsters, Americans distrusted -- and none more so than the Republicans' own base.
On the morning that Timothy McVeigh sent hundreds of innocents to their graves, the lead story in all the major newspapers was President Clinton's disastrous speech of the night before, the low point of his entire presidency, in which he argued pathetically that he was still "relevant" to the country's politics. Clinton's numbers quickly began to turn around. Newt Gingrich's popularity, meanwhile, remained strikingly low. Gingrich called "pathetic" the media's conflation of his "revolution" and McVeigh's. But the court of public opinion is not a court of law, and politicians who show too much overlap with a force that Americans consider a genuine menace are punished for it, as the Democrats were during the Cold War.
And, like the Democrats of the seventies and eighties, the Republicans in the aftermath of Oklahoma City compounded the problem through their nitpicking libertarian indifference to Americans' fears about armed violence. In thrall to their supporters in the National Rifle Association, the Republicans were soon trying to repeal a 1994 assault-weapons ban, after a brief post-bombing breather. And what could be more like the Democrats' "coddling of criminals" circa 1975 than the Republican attack on "taggants" in the 1996 terrorism bill? Congressional Republicans, in the name of the Second Amendment, fought to prevent the use of chemicals that would allow plastic explosives to be traced. This kind of procedural excuse for letting murderers walk led one analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation to coin the term "ACLU Republicans."
An apt parallel. If Christians are the blacks of the Republican coalition, then the NRA is its ACLU. The Republicans are not yet as beholden to their special-interest groups -- their marksmen, polluters, and plutocrats -- as Democrats are to their teachers' unions and race agitators, their feminists and ambulance chasers. But guns are special. The bipartisan political consultant Dick Morris maintains that the single most destructive interest group on the right is the NRA. Representative Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, holds guns -- not abortion -- to blame for the gender gap. Rabidly pro-gun rhetoric has succeeded in putting the Democrats on the side of the cops and crime control, Republicans on the side of criminals and crime. Suddenly, in the wake of Oklahoma City, Americans noticed that it was conservatives, not liberals, who assailed the FBI and railed against putting 100,000 cops on the streets. It was the NRA, not the ACLU, that was raising money by attacking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as "jackbooted thugs." Today it is the right, not the left, on which suspicion falls first whenever a bomb goes off. The identification of Gingrich with McVeigh may have been excessive, but there was no denying that sometime since the Reagan Administration the Republicans had replaced the Democrats as the To-Hell-in-a-Handbasket Party, the party more congenial to haters of America.
HE rhetorical corner that the Republicans got stuck in after Oklahoma City convinced many of them of what non-Republicans had known for months: that the party had a major problem in its leader, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. First, in his self-aggrandizement. Gingrich set the tone by initially accepting a multimillion-dollar book advance from HarperCollins even before the start of his speakership, a speakership in which he was planning to ask Americans to make a number of difficult sacrifices. (After an uproar he announced that he would forgo the advance.) Second, in a nails-on-the-blackboard loquacity that shows no sign of abating. Last January, outlining his "vision for America" before the Cobb County (Georgia) Chamber of Commerce, Gingrich suggested that students read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence: "It will do all of us good if every child begins to learn that they're endowed by the Creator and, by the way, so is the person next to them," he said. Fine, so far, even inspiring -- but then came the hallmark, cannot-shut-up Gingrich touch: "... So, if you're a rapist, the person you're raping is endowed by God."
Asked at a press conference last September whether he worried that Gingrich was making headway in attacking the Internal Revenue Service, Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary, responded, "Since I think the speaker, last time I checked, is probably one institution in American political life less popular than the IRS, the more he wants to get up and talk, I guess the better off we are." He's right: as a former college professor, Gingrich suffers from the stereotype developed by George Wallace but raised to an art by Republicans. He's a "pointy-head" -- strange, abstract, condescending, with radical plans for reshaping society even though he's never had a job in the real world.
Under Gingrich's leadership the Republicans have not merely replaced the Democrats of the 1980s; they have become them. Gingrich was foremost among Republicans in diagnosing the corruption of the incumbency-protection system that Democratic majorities had consolidated in the wake of Watergate. The Democrats created ever-proliferating subcommittees, controlling ever-more-capricious regulations, to coerce big political donors into giving the party a campaign-finance monopoly. From 1973 on Gingrich called the system a "dictatorship." But he owes his rise not to his diagnosis of the system but to his mastery of it. Last year Gingrich was hit with a $300,000 fine for using tax-exempt donations for political purposes and for giving false information to the House Ethics Committee. And since coming to power Gingrich's Republicans have been inclined to inhabit, rather than demolish, the corrupt edifice that the Democrats built. Whip Tom DeLay is said to keep lists of "friendly" and "unfriendly" PACs, and has made clear to lobbyists that they will have to send more-conservative operatives to Capitol Hill if they want to get business done.
For much of his tenure Gingrich's approval ratings have hovered in the twenties, even dropping into the teens at times, and the Republican Party suffers to the extent that he's viewed as a national leader. Although profile-oriented news media have certainly played a role in identifying the party with its least popular member, Gingrich bears the lion's share of blame. Early in the 1980s, after all, the Republicans sought to forge precisely such a direct identification between Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Party. It didn't work, because O'Neill explicitly rejected it, saying that he was elected only by his constituents. Which is true. It's true of Gingrich, too. But Gingrich has treated descriptions of him as the Republican "leader" as an opportunity to compare himself to Churchill, Eisenhower, and FDR, as the former representative Susan Molinari remarked in her recent book.
The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer for The Weekly Standard and also writes a weekly Washington column for the New York Press. His articles have appeared in The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, George, and many other publications.
Illustrations by J. C. Suarès
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; The Southern Captivity of the GOP; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 55 - 72.