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Is the Party Over?
Round One: Opening Remarks


The Republican Party isn't "over." It won't cease to exist. Thanks to television and campaign-finance laws, both parties have taken on the character of permanent governmental institutions. Something called the "Republican Party" will be with us for a long time, although what it will stand for is anybody's guess.

James Dobson is working to transform the Republican Party rather than to win elections for Republicans. He explicitly threatens to pull his supporters out of the party unless it becomes more responsive to Christian concerns. Focused on primaries in swing districts, he will bring nothing but division to the GOP unless and until the party is rejiggered to his liking.

The big question is whether Dobson has any carrot to offer the GOP along with this clumsily wielded stick. It doesn't look like it. On the one hand, he reaches more backers -- 28 million weekly, via TV and radio -- than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did in their prime. On the other hand, Falwell and Robertson came on the national scene when the born-again-Christian Jimmy Carter was drawing half the vote of self-identifying Christians. Anyone promising to drag these people into the Republican column could get the GOP's ear.

From The Body Politic:

"The insurgence of the religious Right within the Republican Party fills a void; they are placeholders until something better comes along. But as visionless as they are, they still have enough clout to foil any big plans the Democrats might have. So, we have stalemate. We wrestle over red herrings while the really big problems fester."
--Alan Dechert, 6/18/98

What Do You Think?
Join the debate in The Body Politic. We'll highlight selected readers' comments here in the margins as the Roundtable progresses.

But today conservative Christians are monolithically Republican. Does Dobson think his followers are going to switch their votes to the gay-rights-supporting, partial-birth-abortion-promoting, secular-humanism-espousing Democrats? Not likely. If the GOP makes the calculation that Christians have no place else to go, then the party's next nominee will treat them as Clinton did blacks in the 1992 campaign, when he lauded black "ideals" but tacitly promised the rest of the country that that black "agenda" would go nowhere. (Remember Sister Souljah? Notice any big ground swell of black Republicanism as a result?)

The best-case GOP scenario involving Dobson is that he brings a few hard-right activists into national politics, that they energize Republicans at the grass-roots level in the South, and that no one who's offended by the fire-and-brimstone will notice. That's highly unlikely.

The worst-case scenario is that he pads Republican majorities in the Southern states where they're already secure, damages moderate and liberal Republicans in primaries, and scares the bejesus out of Republicans outside the South.

It looks like this is happening already:

In a California primary election this spring Dobson backed values conservative Tom Bordonaro, who toppled Brooks Firestone, the hand-picked, pro-choice candidate of Gingrich and the Republican leadership. Bordonaro, who then made a campaign promise to vote against Gingrich for speaker, was beaten in the general election.

Also this spring, Dobson backed the gubernatorial candidacy of Nebraska Rep. Jon Christensen, which focused -- graphically and gleefully -- on pornography. Christensen, favored to win, finished third.

Terence P. Jeffrey responds:
"Chris Caldwell writes, wrongly, that the 'Reaganite coalition cannot be reassembled ... because the Cold War is over and all politicians of all parties accept the coalition's moderate-to-low tax philosophy.' That is an ironic mistake to have made the same week that the Republican-controlled Senate rejected an $885 billion increase in tobacco taxes -- a tax increase devoutly supported by President Clinton and the majority of congressional Democrats. The tax rebellion is alive and well -- and the Democrats, as the party of high taxes, are still on the wrong side of it."

See the rest of Jeffrey's response.

As for party unity, if Wattenberg is right the Republicans are in trouble. You can't unify around nothing -- which is a good one-word description of what Republicans now stand for. Though the present crop of presidential candidates are all trying to unify the party in the most simplistic way possible -- describing themselves as pro-business and pro-life -- the Reaganite coalition can't be reassembled. That's because the Cold War is over and all politicians of all parties accept the coalition's moderate-to-low tax philosophy. The Democrats are a much less radical party than they used to be. A lot of Republican extremism in the early 1980s was ignored by swing voters because it was impossible to be more radical than the Democrats -- particularly on foreign policy and economics.

That's no longer the case. You can believe or disbelieve the Democratic Leadership Council polls that show 74 percent of Democrats to be firm free-marketers. But look at a Fox poll question from this month, which asks: "How much confidence do you have in the federal government?"

Democrats Republicans
A lot 10% 6%
Some 46% 46%
Not much 33% 39%
None 8% 8%

Terence P. Jeffrey responds:
"If you define the Republican Party as a handful of elitists in Washington, D.C., Caldwell is correct that a tough China policy that inspires 'populist distrust of big business' is 'Republican blasphemy.' But at the grass roots these days it is entirely orthodox for Republicans to 'distrust big business.' Who is it, after all, who sold missile technology to the Chinese?"

See the rest of Jeffrey's response.

On the "Republican" issue of big government, such differences as still exist between the parties are minor ones.

Some Republicans are hoping China could be an issue that yokes (a) pro-life sentiment against the brutality of China's birth policies, (b) institutional outrage against Democratic fundraising excesses in Asia, and (c) populist distrust of big business. But (a) means pushing an aggressive pro-life agenda domestically, and Dobson is right that the Gingrich faction has no stomach for that; (b) means campaign-finance reform, which Republicans have shown again and again they don't want; and (c) is Republican blasphemy.

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. We'll highlight selected readers' comments as the Roundtable progresses.

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

Christopher Caldwell, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard, 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.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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