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Is the Party Over?
Round One: Opening Remarks


Christopher Caldwell's political "demography" is mistaken for three reasons. First, he uses a single poll by the liberal Washington Post rather than using actual election results as his baseline assumption of how voters now feel about the Republicans and the Democrats on various issues. Second, he focuses primarily on Congress rather than on the presidency for his analysis of Republican failure. Finally, he adopts the bogus so-called "Finkelstein Box" to describe what he believes are the geographical dividing lines in American politics.

How big are these mistakes?

Christopher Caldwell responds:
"Any article that focuses, as mine did, on the collapse of the national Republican Party since they retook Congress has only one set of 'actual election results' to work with: those of 1996, in which the Republicans got clocked, in both presidential and congressional races."

See the rest of Caldwell's response.

Actual election results show that the 1990s have been a decade of success for the GOP at the congressional level and a decade of failure at the presidential level. The Republicans have won and maintained a majority Congress so far this decade. But they have lost the presidency twice to Bill Clinton, even though Clinton never won an outright majority of the popular vote. The presidency, not Congress, is clearly the place to focus any analysis of what's gone wrong in the GOP.

From The Body Politic:

"Congressional members are not elected by the nation as a whole, they are each elected by a small group of Americans in a district.... The party that controls the presidency, is, to my mind, more representative of how America feels, not the Congress."
--Clang, 6/19/98

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.

Finkelstein's box represents the cultural biases of a New York-based political consultant rather than reflecting the real America. Caldwell is particularly mistaken in using this "Finkelstein Box" to illustrate his argument that the GOP is too conservative and too southern. "In states that have their largest population centers outside the box, no Republican senatorial candidate got a majority in the last election," Caldwell writes, making his congressionalist argument. "Inside the box no Democrat got a majority except Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (and that just barely). Although most Republican governors outside the box are pro-choice, almost every single Republican governor inside the box is pro-life."

Caldwell attributes Republican electoral failure "outside the box" to a growing "southern control over the Republican agenda" that alienates voters elsewhere. How so? "The most profound clash between the South and everyone else, of course, is a cultural one," he claims. "It arises from the southern cultural tradition of putting values -- particularly Christian values -- at the center of politics."

But when you superimpose Finkelstein's box over an electoral map of the 1996 presidential election, Caldwell's analysis collapses. Inside the box -- in Finkelstein's theoretically Republican America -- Clinton beat Dole in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida, which have a combined seventy-six electoral votes. Dole's loss in those states demonstrates that at least one part of the Republican failure was not that the GOP pandered too much to southern "values" but that Clinton pandered just enough to reach into territory that ought to have been Republican.

Outside the box -- in Finkelstein's theoretically Democratic America -- Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio all have Catholic pro-life Republican governors and Pennsylvania is home to Catholic senator Rick Santorum, the Republican author of the partial-birth abortion ban that President Clinton vetoed.

Christopher Caldwell responds:
"Picking up seats where you didn't expect to is what winning presidential candidates do -- which is why it's meaningless to invoke a potential 'middle-American' bloc that combines the South with Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. You can call these states middle-American or whatever you want, but what unites them is that they all decided in 1996 that they did not want a Republican President. Mr. Jeffrey is left with a tautology: if only Republicans could poach enough electoral votes to win, then they would win!"

See the rest of Caldwell's response.

Had Dole held his base inside the Finkelstein box and reached outside the box to win the pro-life states just mentioned, he would have reversed Clinton's landslide, taking the White House with 315 electoral votes to Clinton's 123.

The bottom line: a Republican middle-America coalition -- the South in combination with the northern Midwest -- equals a presidential victory over a Democratic Party confined to the Pacific littoral and the liberal northeast. The box Finkelstein has drawn for the conservative party realigns itself into a solid block of territory that runs almost coast-to-coast, leaving the liberal party with the "peculiar periphery" -- Ted Kennedy's backyard and those nether regions of the West Coast not represented by right-wing congressman like Duncan Hunter and John Doolittle. The real questions that need to be answered to understand the Republican failure are these: Why was Clinton able to hold the Democratic base while reaching into Republican geographical territory? And, conversely, why was Dole not able to hold the Republican base, or win significant states in Democratic territory?

From Clinton's perspective it helped that both Clinton himself and his running mate were southerners. Beyond that, the Clinton-Dick Morris strategy of moving the Democratic Party to the right to capture votes worked. And, rather than highlight differences with Clinton on social issues like abortion and gay rights that might have won Dole the votes of more southern Christians and northern Reagan Democrats, Dole downplayed those differences. Rather than oppose Clinton on internationalist initiatives like the World Trade Organization -- an issue that unites southern Christians, northern Catholics and Perotistas -- Dole participated in a lame duck session of a Democratic Congress to make sure the WTO was approved.

What about the Hispanic vote? Well, Hispanics, like many Reagan Democrats in the industrial Midwest, are largely Catholic, and are conservative on social and cultural issues. A Republican candidate who looks and sounds like Wall Street's favorite son and refuses to differentiate himself from the Democratic candidate on moral issues such as abortion and gay rights is not going to have much luck moving Democratic Hispanics into the GOP column. The very issues that make the GOP attractive to southern Christians would also make it attractive to Hispanic Catholics.

As for the question on James Dobson: first, he doesn't "claim" a huge following -- he has a huge following. His organization controls a mailing list of 2.5 million names, the biggest in conservative circles, political or apolitical. He moderates a thirty-minute daily radio show that is broadcast on more than 1700 stations. That's about three times as many stations as broadcast Rush Limbaugh, who also has a huge following. Second, Dobson's "following" is not "susceptible." From my experience in dealing with them, they are highly intelligent, highly educated consumers of both cultural and political information. What they have in common with one another is an internalized Christian morality -- which, by nature, would tend to lead them to common political conclusions. Third, Dobson is not in the "southern morals business." He comes from Los Angeles and is headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Like me he is a product of the cosmopolitan West.

For years Republican political leaders have courted Dobson because they recognized his potential political clout. But he scrupulously stayed out of practical politics. Republican activists around the country can tell you, however, that Christians who listen to Dobson's radio show and read the letters he sends out from his organization, Focus on the Family, tend also to be people who get actively involved in grass-roots Republican politics.

Stanley B. Greenberg responds:
"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 many social conservatives, even in the South, are uncomfortable with the strident politicized religiosity of the Republicans' new-found friends."

See the rest of Greenberg's response.

Unlike Gary Bauer, who has a political action committee called the Campaign for Working Families, which can and has spent significant money to directly affect congressional races, Dobson has no formal political organization. All Dobson has is moral authority -- and the one political cause he seems moved to use that authority to advance is the pro-life cause.

The best-case scenario for the Republican Party is that Dobson will use his moral authority to frighten a pusillanimous Republican Congress into being more aggressively pro-life. To the degree he succeeds in doing that he will help the Republicans win more seats in November.

If the Republican Party nominates another Bush or Dole in 2000 -- that is, if it nominates another candidate unwilling to draw the distinction between Republicans and Democrats on the pro-life issue -- it will have an extremely difficult time winning back the White House, for the reasons cited above. Again, Dobson will do the party a favor if he uses his moral authority to force candidates to highlight the pro-life issue in the Republican nominating process.

No matter how many Republican hopefuls throw their hats into the ring in 2000, only three candidates will survive the New Hampshire primary in February of that year. One will be the champion of the social conservatives, one will be the champion of the economic conservatives, and one will be the candidate of the party establishment. I predict that the social conservative will be Senator John Ashcroft, the economic conservative will be publisher Steve Forbes, and the establishment candidate will be Texas governor George Bush.

After New Hampshire, the challenge for each of these candidates will be to expand their reach into the other candidates' base vote.

The second phase of the race, I believe, will end up a showdown between Ashcroft and Bush. Why? Because Ashcroft, who has become the point man for cutting taxes in this Senate, has more credibility with economic conservatives than Forbes has with social conservatives, and Ashcroft, having served two terms as Missouri attorney general and two terms as Missouri governor, also has a better resumé. Still, Bush will be hard to beat. If Bush is smart and runs to the right on taxes and abortion he will exorcise from Republican voters' minds the image his father eventually developed as a moderate on these issues. An outspokenly pro-life, anti-tax Bush would be unstoppable inside the GOP, because he could pull votes from Ashcroft and Forbes while maintaining solid support in the establishment wing of the party. Bush would not only unite the Republicans, he would reunite the coalition that put Republicans in the White House in the 1980s.

But if Bush waffles on taxes or abortion, or if his gubernatorial record on close inspection shows that he did not advance these issues as he should have, Ashcroft could beat him for the nomination.

If Ashcroft can defeat Bush in the primaries, he would be the strongest of all possible Republican candidates in the 2000 general election for President. His strong views on social issues, particularly the pro-life issue, would energize the Christian South, and give Reagan Democrats a good reason to cross over.

As a clean-cut, straight-living defender of U.S. sovereignty, and as a champion of reform issues like term limits, Ashcroft would appeal to Perot voters while actually further strengthening his appeal to Christians and Reagan Democrats. After the serial scandals of the Clinton years, Ashcroft could well strike the sensibilities of middle America the same way clean-cut, straight-living Jimmy Carter did in 1976.

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

Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor of Human Events and was the presidential-campaign manager for Patrick J. Buchanan in 1996.

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