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Is the Party Over?
Round Three: Concluding Remarks


One need only read Grover Norquist's and Terence P. Jeffrey's responses to understand why the conservative coalition is in crisis. That these very smart advocates for the conservative cause seem only to compound the problems and enlarge the fractures just underscores the good sense of Christopher Caldwell.

We should begin and end this roundtable with an understanding of the ordinary people who pay sufficient attention to politics to know whether it is relevant to their lives. They do not have a lot of time for politics because they are striving and working hard to improve the lives of their families. Even in these good times people see themselves working against the odds. Both husband and wife are forced to work, but they also know the family is in trouble and kids are not getting enough direction and attention. Society does not make it any easier for people: morals are in decline, technology and global change produce rising uncertainty, and institutions (like schools and Social Security) are under siege. People do not expect that they can turn back from this era of change, but they do want some areas of security and some support for their efforts.

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That is what politics is for.

Do Norquist's "leave-us-alone" conservatives have anything to say to these families? If Norquist really wanted to cut their taxes, they would listen, but Norquist mainly wants to cut the taxes of those who are most advantaged. After that, Norquist's message is that government should get out of the way, leave people alone, get much smaller. But these families are paying attention to the center-left parties and governments today (and not the right) precisely because those are the people trying to figure out how to promote market growth while also promoting public education and family supports like health care and retirement security. They are trying to figure out how to increase the odds that ordinary people, not just the best educated, will succeed in a period of global change.

Norquist grabs hold of the NEA as evidence that the Democratic Party remains unreformed and unrepentant. Somehow he failed to notice what happened to Bob Dole when he attacked the teachers' unions and promised to abolish the Department of Education. When the public concluded that Dole thought the federal government should have a diminished role in education, they pulled back and gave Clinton an overwhelming margin on the issue of education -- and in the election. Voters are looking for a politics that is relevant to their lives, and the right seems not to get it.

Jeffrey's prescription for the Republicans is likely to exacerbate the party's divisions, but at least he is raising issues that are relevant to people. Unlike Norquist he does not allow rhetoric to disguise real-world problems.

Jeffrey wants to underscore social-conservative issues, like abortion, and the need for a more nationalist trade policy. He touches two real nerves in the public: the desire for moral regeneration and for America to have greater say over its fortunes in this new transnational economy. Jeffrey understands many of the currents that swirl around the family.

But Jeffrey has too limited a vision for families, and thus, like Norquist, is likely to create a discourse that fails to prove relevant. The family faces an immense number of challenges -- modest income increases and declining benefits, worsening neighborhood schools, crime, divorce, lack of day care, the intrusion of the Internet, and much more. A family-values politics dominated by abortion is likely to be crowded out by the more encompassing discourse advanced by Clinton, the Democrats, and nearly all the center-left parties.

Jeffrey's position on trade is tapping a real worry, but people are looking for how to succeed in this global economy rather than how to roll it back. Indeed, a center-left discourse on trade gets voters' attention (as it did for Clinton in 1992 and 1993) when it advances, simultaneously, an expansive vision on trade and an expansive vision on domestic investment that emphasizes technology, infrastructure, education, and training.

In any case, Jeffrey's position -- both on abortion and trade -- is a sure formula for leaving the conservative coalition completed fractured. It is not sufficient to tally the gains of a particular positioning without assessing the losses that are sure to mount up and the battles that are sure to break out.

Whether it is Jeffrey's fractured conservative politics or Norquist's leave-us-alone, do-nothing version, the results are likely to be the same -- a conservative coalition with little to say to ordinary people. Both forms of conservative politics lead to the same conservative crisis.

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.

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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