Round Two: Response
Grover Norquist's and Terence Jeffrey's responses to the Caldwell challenge simply put on display the symptoms of a Republican Party in trouble. When the history of this era is written, their responses will be seen as exhibits one and two in the inquiry into what caused the collapse of the Reagan coalition.
The first self-delusion is the flight from the presidential elections of the 1990s. Norquist and Jeffrey try to puncture Caldwell's warnings with smug reminders that Republicans have taken control of the Congress and governor's mansions across the country during this decade. How could such a party be in trouble? Of course, by that logic, there was never a Reagan revolution. I remember when Democrats minimized the significance of the Reagan realignment at the national level because Democrats never lost control of the House -- in fact they increased their numbers in both the House and Senate -- and maintained large Democratic majorities in state legislative chambers throughout the 1980s.
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But there was a Reagan revolution. As these conservative commentators certainly appreciate, it is the struggle for the presidency that shapes our political culture and its underlying forces. Reagan created the bond with social conservatives in the rural South and with ethnic Catholics in the urban Midwest; he advanced the libertarian, anti-government ethos that opened up new areas of the Mountain West. All that took place while Democrats were finding ways to win impressively in congressional elections, particularly in 1986.
Self-delusion number two: Norquist and Jeffrey try to impress the reader with the litany of groups now rallying to support the Republican Party. There are the home schoolers, the parents'-rights people, the pro-lifers, the gun advocates and the NRA, the property owners, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Dobson's Focus on the Family organization and its 2.5 million adherents, and so on.
I guess we are supposed to be impressed, and we might be, if we did not recall the self-delusion of the Democrats who found their strength in the litany of groups that were linked to them -- the environmentalists, civil-rights activists, the gay-rights activists, the labor unions, the AARP, and so on. But as the Republicans will soon discover, this kind of litany is like a house of cards. For the Democrats, the groups supporting them represented important struggles and values that had come to define the party, but the organizational bonds outlasted the struggles and eventually marginalized the party in national (as opposed to congressional) elections. Group alliances are absolutely critical to the success of the party, but they cannot be a substitute for a larger national mission.
Self-delusion number three: Norquist and Jeffrey assure each other and their tight-knit group of organizational friends that if Republicans would only speak more forcefully to the values of the base they could win a national majority. They need to run as social and religious conservatives, highlighting family issues: abortion, guns, tax cuts. (Norquist also suggests free trade, while Jeffrey suggests attacking the WTO, hardly a small difference.) That would supposedly win back the South in national elections and create new openings to conservative Catholics and Latino voters.
Again, this all has a familiar ring. When I first began writing about Macomb County, Michigan, and the need to reach and build a new identification with suburban families, I encountered a chorus of critics who deplored the failure to reaffirm the issues that created the Democrats' electoral base. After each losing presidential election, somebody on the Democratic side emerged with the self-delusion and a calculator: if Democrats had pursued a different strategy and produced massive turnout among minority and low-income voters, they would have won the election. Democrats do need to engage the downscale electorate in a broad way, but base turnout was a too-limited cure for the Democrats' problems.
It is a self-delusion for Republicans to think that there is a hidden majority of social conservatives across the country ready to respond to a Republican Party that speaks loudly on values issues. Catholic and Latino voters, highlighted by Norquist and Jeffrey, are socially conservative, but they are also moved by social-justice issues and concerns with economic inequality. Further, the Republicans no longer speak alone on the values issues. Democrats are now competing for this ground and speak comfortably about values and pressures on the family. And, finally, many social conservatives, even in the South, are uncomfortable with the strident politicized religiosity of the Republicans' new-found friends. Two of the best-known religious conservatives, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, have some of the lowest poll ratings in the country and some of the lowest in the South.
Caldwell's challenge to conservatives should open an important debate -- one that begins with an elemental recognition that there is a problem. Self-delusions can be reassuring, but they are also evidence confirming Caldwell's thesis.
Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty
Round One: Opening Remarks -- posted on June 18, 1998
Stanley B. Greenberg is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Greenberg Research. He has served as polling advisor to President Bill Clinton, President Nelson Mandela, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and their national campaigns.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.