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Is the Party Over?
Round One: Opening Remarks


Christopher Caldwell has raised the right questions: Is the Republican Party obsolete? Is the Republican Party dysfunctional?

Caldwell posed the questions so starkly because so few conservatives had stepped up to the question posed months earlier by the editors of the conservative Weekly Standard: If conservatives' ideas are so popular everywhere, why is it that conservatives are losing so many elections all over the developed world? Few who took up the editors' challenge ventured anything so daring as Caldwell's article in this month's Atlantic. Most were willing to settle for tactical answers. On one extreme, some lamented the ascendancy of clever and slick center-left politicians, like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who have stolen conservative ideas and policies. On the other extreme were those who lamented the overheated rhetoric and tactics of congressional Republican leaders who foolishly closed down the federal government.

From The Body Politic:

"To suggest that the right-wing Christian Coalition is the problem with the GOP shows a bad grasp of the facts. This group has been instrumental in getting out the vote, and electing many GOP congressional and senatorial candidates.... [It is] also a truly broad characterization to say that the southern religious contingent controls politics in the South."
--John Shook, 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.

Divisions among religious, nativist, protectionist, anti-affirmative-action, pro-civil-rights, anti-Chinese, pro-Chinese, secular, and globalist Republicans were rarely taken seriously -- even though those divisions have become more and more the public face of the Republican Party.

But tactical discussion in the face of such troubles will not prove satisfying for very long. There is too much wreckage all around to remain sanguine about the future of the Republican Party.

Conservative parties and the center-right coalitions are in trouble all across the developed world. The main national conservative party in Canada faced crushing defeats in the past two national elections, and its vote has splintered among regional-nationalist, fiscal-conservative, and populist forces. The Tories in Britain were divided between European and Eurosceptic wings, and their support continues to sink, even after the worst defeat of the past 150 years. The French center-right coalition has recently lost to an unreformed Socialist Party, is now hopelessly divided between Gaullist, market-oriented, and neo-fascist conservatives, and is at risk of losing Paris. The Christian Democrats in Italy have dissolved, with the remnants of its support divided between regional-nationalist, neo-fascist, Perot-like forces. And the last prominent conservative, Chancellor Kohl of Germany, faces defeat at the hands of a reformed Social Democratic leader while extreme right-wing parties have emerged with significant support among conservative segments of the electorate.

Grover Norquist responds:
"The idea that the electoral losses of 'conservative' parties in Britain, Canada, and France following George Bush's suicide in 1992 are part of some failure of the center-right world view misses one key point. In each case the governing 'conservative' party specifically repudiated its Reaganite or Thatcherite tradition and RAISED TAXES. There is one crime a conservative party may not commit if it wants to be re-elected: raising taxes."

See the rest of Norquist's response.

It is hard to imagine that slick liberal politicians and tactical errors can explain all this trouble. Conservative parties, including America's Republican Party, are in trouble because they are now trapped by the history they have created.

Conservative parties became ascendant because voters scorned the center-left, liberal, and socialist parties that could not manage the transition to a modern post-industrial society. The Democratic Party, for example, helped make it possible for urban and industrial working-class families to share the bounty of an America built on heavy manufacturing, large industry, and commercialized agriculture. But while the Democrats managed historic changes, they could not contain the forces that contended for control of an increasingly dysfunctional Democratic Party. Richard Nixon won in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 because the Republicans successively attacked a Democratic Party soft on crime, weak on defense, big on taxes and spending, and insensitive to the values of middle-class America. The conservative business-oriented Republican Party of Ronald Reagan conquered the South and mountain West; it became the party of the religiously devout; it made major gains with suburban Catholic voters, particularly in the Midwest; it won over many white, male, blue-collar workers who had no place in the modern Democratic Party. (We could write a virtually identical story for the British Labour Party about how its dysfunctionality provided the rationale for an ascendant Thatcherism.)

Grover Norquist responds:
"Stanley Greenberg's assertions that the Democratic Party has moved toward the center and abandoned its losing beliefs on foreign policy, crime, high taxes, and big-spending centralized government are his own wishful thinking. Bill Clinton's moderate-sounding rhetoric is not the same thing as a sea change in the core beliefs and interests that animate the modern Democratic Party."

See the rest of Norquist's response.

The problem for conservatives is that the Democratic Party did not simply wallow in its dysfunctionality. The internal battles of the 1980s that proved so costly at the polls were part of a process that led ultimately to Clinton's victories in the 1990s. Similar struggles produced Tony Blair in Britain, Wim Kok in the Netherlands, and Gerhard Shroder in Germany. All these leaders stress fiscal prudence, welfare reform, tough anti-crime measures, and the new economy -- along with a renewed emphasis on education, health care, and retirement.

The conservative parties are increasingly dysfunctional because the center-left parties are not. The Republicans are now trying to contain the forces that they forged together to fell the Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s -- but without the specter of a big-spending, big-taxing, unpatriotic, and anti-middle-class Democratic Party.

Christopher Caldwell responds:
"'Intolerant' is the wrong word to use for Republican positions on religion and abortion. Being pro-life can't be reduced to intolerance of women any more than being pro-choice can be reduced simply to intolerance of fetuses. Closer to the mark would be to say that Republicans have entrusted absolute control over their moral agenda to the most abrasive regional element in their coalition."

See the rest of Caldwell's response.

In the meantime, the Republican Party is living with the political inheritance of its earlier successes, but that inheritance is proving debilitating. The GOP is now a southern party, dominated by its religious conservative core. It is a party little interested in minorities and intolerant on religious issues and abortion; it is an anti-government party little interested in spending on national needs, including education, or in regulating the environment; it is increasingly divided by its nationalist and internationalist instincts.

As a consequence the GOP is losing Latino voters across the southern rim of states, from Florida to California; its blue-collar secular men are drifting away toward Perot-like candidates; its suburban women are looking increasingly Democratic; young voters have emerged as the most reliably Democratic in the electorate; and Republicans have virtually ceded California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Northeast to the Democrats in national elections.

To be sure, Republicans are trying to plug the dike. How else can we explain House Republicans listening to pollster Frank Luntz and rushing out to champion Puerto Rican statehood?

They would be wiser to listen to Christopher Caldwell.

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

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.
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