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Is the Party Over?
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.

Terence P. Jeffrey responds:
"If you take Greenberg at his word ... it is no wonder he now encourages Caldwell's analysis of Republican failure. Greenberg knows this analysis, if put in action, would recapitulate the mistakes of the Bush and Dole campaigns and guarantee rather than avert future Republican failures."

See the rest of Jeffrey's response.

I recognize the symptoms of a troubled party because I have heard these voices before -- as you have. Norquist and Jeffrey sound painfully like the Democratic apologists who failed to save the old Democratic Party in an earlier time. Like the old Democratic apologists, Norquist and Jeffrey offer a series of self-delusions that allow the faithful to feel that history puts them comfortably on the winning side.

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.

Christopher Caldwell responds:
"One can exaggerate the 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."

See the rest of Caldwell's response.

By ignoring the presidential elections or trivializing Clinton's electoral accomplishments, such conservatives are able to maintain the self-delusion that the conservative coalition is doing just fine. Well, that coalition has only been able to marshal about 40 percent of the national vote in the past two presidential elections. At the same time, Bill Clinton's Democrats have begun to shape the emerging political culture. The Democratic Party -- no longer weighed down by remembrances of big spending and high taxes, indifference to family values, or worries about crime -- has forged new bonds with non-college and suburban women, Catholics, seniors, young people, and Latino voters across the southern rim of the country. Democrats are being heard on education, family-support issues, and the environment -- and, indeed, on the role of the national government. That is why the polls show Democrats favored over Republicans on a broad range of issues facing families.

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.

Grover Norquist responds:
"Despite Clinton's rhetoric the Democratic Party remains the party of labor-union bosses, rich trial lawyers, corrupt big-city machines, welfare bureaucrats -- those who view the proper role of government as taking money from those who earned it and giving it to the politically well-connected."

See the rest of Norquist's response.

Thus, we witness Grover Norquist rattling off the policies that excite the current conservative coalition -- personal-retirement accounts, capital-gains tax cuts, tort reform, concealed-weapons laws, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. But what does it add up to? Wrapped tightly in the embrace of these groups, conservatives can hardly hear the cacophony that is weakening the party.

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.

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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