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Is the Party Over?
Round Three: Concluding Remarks


Two themes run through the second-round responses.

The first is that neither party can decide whether it wants to be the populist or the elitist party. This tension is clearest on trade. As Terence Jeffrey correctly notes, battles between nationalism and internationalism could be as decisive for future party identification as battles between big and small government have been heretofore. What's fascinating is that, for now, one can't say which party is going to end up on which side. Both parties are split in two on the issue. President Clinton makes common cause with the whole of the Republican congressional delegation on free trade, while the conservative Gary Bauer's stance against most-favored-nation status for China has seen him lauded as a leftist by William Saletan in Mother Jones and praised by the religious liberal Garry Wills in George. For that matter, as Stanley Greenberg helpfully notes, Mr. Jeffrey and Grover Norquist are diametrically opposed on the issue.

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A second theme is that Democrats' successes rest on the degree to which they've tamed their earlier hubris. Mr. Greenberg is right that Democrats have at least drawn even with Republicans on many values issues. One can exaggerate Democrats' reinvention, but today it would require an electron microscope to find the difference between the two parties -- at least at the upper levels. Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore are all considerably more sympathetic to one another's politics than any of them would be to Pat Buchanan's or Paul Wellstone's.

Mr. Norquist's distinction between "individualist" Republicans and "taking" Democrats has not been readily apparent to voters since the Reagan Administration. Look at crime, which has been a national issue since Richard Nixon made it one in 1968. President Clinton is surely not wholly responsible for the halving of violent crime in many cities since he took office, but unless Republicans can plausibly explain why they themselves should get the credit (and they can't), this is an area of Democratic strength.

Look at education. Mr. Norquist has a point that teachers' unions have exploited their position. But Beltway Republicans don't feel that way. GOP pollsters' memos leaked this past fall urged politicians to be less confrontational in attacking teachers' unions. And who, in recent weeks, is the politician who has most aggressively identified himself with the school-choice movement? The Democratic senator (and would-be presidential candidate) John Kerry.

Look, finally, at taxes and spending. Maybe Mr. Norquist is right that conservative governments are often thrown out of office only after raising taxes. But why are they always raising taxes? Republicans love "abolish the IRS" stunts and the rhetoric of tax cuts; where is the legislation that would slash any tax besides capital-gains? Mr. Jeffrey is right that we owe thanks to the Republicans for blocking the appalling McCain tobacco bill, but he exaggerates their heroism. Can anyone name a prominent Republican who opposed the bill? Missouri's John Ashcroft was the only Republican on the Commerce committee who voted against sending the bill to the floor. Oklahoma's Don Nickles was the only other GOP pol who spoke against it with any regularity. Otherwise, Republicans were along for the ride, hoping only either to water the bill down or bend it to their purposes. Newt Gingrich swore this spring that he wouldn't "let the President get to the left of me" on tobacco. The first thing Mr. Gingrich did after the bill collapsed was to announce the drafting of a Republican tobacco bill that lacks the huge tax levies but differs little from the Democratic version in its intrusive regulation. Hardly evidence that Republicans are the "individualist" coalition.

"Republicans are pushing to abolish the marriage-penalty tax that Clinton defends," Mr. Norquist says. This "pushing" consisted of slipping the tax cut into the tobacco bill so that it could be paid for with the extra taxes the bill would have raised elsewhere. In fact, in the week before he left for China, the President was defending the marriage-penalty reform and blaming Republicans for having killed the bill that would have made it law. This is not to deny that the President was being disingenuous, only to say that the public can be forgiven for asking whether Republicans are any keener than Democrats to cut taxes.

One last note: No one mentioned foreign policy in any depth. But the Democrats have, under Clinton, become the more hawkish of the two parties -- certainly in Haiti, Iraq, and the Balkans. It is more often Republicans who warn of "adventurism" and flee accountability, much as Democrats did during the Iraq war. The Republican position is not without its rationale, and presumably is to Mr. Jeffrey's liking. But if, in 2000, the Democrats run a decorated Vietnam vet like John Kerry or Bob Kerrey against any of the Vietnam-era non-combatants who dominate the Republican field, then Mr. Jeffrey's "patriot" vote won't look too secure for the GOP, either.

What do you think?

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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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