u_topn picture
rub_pp picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

From the archives:

"The Southern Captivity of the GOP," by Christopher Caldwell (June, 1998)

In a geographic and cultural box, with political demography tilting against it, the Republican Party is an "obsolescent one," argues the author, a senior writer for the conservative Weekly Standard.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Is the Party Over?" (June, 1998)
Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, said that a house divided cannot stand. Does the same now apply to the Grand Old Party? Atlantic Unbound has invited The Atlantic's Jack Beatty and a panel of distinguished commentators to take up this question in an Atlantic Unbound roundtable.

Join the conversation in a special conference on paralysis in the GOP, in Post & Riposte.

Previously in Politics & Prose:

  • The Last Refuge of the American Bigot -- October 1998
    The murder in Wyoming and the search for the roots of anti-gay violence.

  • The Dissipation of Decency -- August 1998
    The real political scandal these days is the abandonment of those without health insurance.

  • America, Inc. -- July 1998
    A review of Gain, the new novel by Richard Powers in which the corporation is the shaping force of American history.

  • Do the Right Thing -- June 1998
    Thinking globally -- and acting ethically -- in the new world economic order.

  • The Graveyard of the American Dream -- May 1998
    What's behind California's decline, and what's at stake for the rest of the country.

  • Games of Monopoly -- April 1998
    A look at the tactics of John D. Rockefeller shows that capitalism, like history, repeats itself.

  • Newt's Last Stand
    Monica Lewinsky is no substitute for an agenda -- as Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republicans have just learned

    by Christopher Caldwell

    November 11, 1998

    In early April, Newt Gingrich told a meeting of the House Republican leadership that the party could afford to say nothing about the then-raging Monica Lewinsky scandal, because Republicans were "mathematically" certain to gain seats in the November elections. Since the Civil War, Gingrich explained, the nonpresidential party had never lost congressional seats in the sixth year of an administration. In fact, it had tended to gain between two and three dozen.

    A Modest Proposal
    The GOP needs an issue to rally around. Jack Beatty offers a suggestion.

    In late April, as President Clinton showed signs of emerging from the initial tumult of the Lewinsky scandal with his presidential powers intact, Gingrich changed course, saying, "I will never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic." But he didn't change his underlying assumptions: first, that Monica Lewinsky was an electoral bonanza for the GOP; second, that the tide of voter sentiment was surging so powerfully in a Republican direction that the party would pile up election wins even if it didn't tell the country how it planned to use its expanded power. Republicans paid the price for such arrogance on election day, with a stunning loss of five seats; Gingrich paid days later with his job.

    Gingrich's certitude was typical of the hubris that made him the most unpopular American politician of the decade. His presiding over a political campaign utterly lacking in content, however, was out of character. It was Gingrich, after all, who in his first months as Speaker had urged a politics of "permanent offense," involving radical institutional reform, the devolution of government, and wide-ranging legislation. If Gingrich failed to develop an agenda for the 1998 elections, it's not because he didn't want to. It's because he couldn't.

    In "The Southern Captivity of the GOP," which appeared in The Atlantic last June, I warned of such a deadlock. Let me oversimplify a bit: most of the ground that congressional Republicans gained on Democrats in the 1980s and early 1990s came from the addition of Southern members, whose constituents fled the Democratic Party over such "values" issues as abortion, guns, and the place of Christianity in public life. Traditional Republicans from other parts of the country, who cared primarily about protecting the economy from Democrats' big-government policies, distrusted the newcomers. But at just the moment Republicans took over Congress, thanks to nineteen new Southern seats, the Southern wing became the dominant one in the party.

    For the past three years the Republicans have been without an agenda, because they couldn't formulate one without blowing the party to pieces. Southern members wanted to put their stamp on every piece of legislation. (This year's budget bill was months late because Republicans bogged the process down with amendments on abortion, U.N. funding, gun control, and ample pork in the old Southern tradition.) "Old" Republicans realized concessions to the Southern right were poison in the ever-more-suburban, ever-more-lifestyle-oriented rest of the country, which was now inclined to view the Republican Party as the Gothic party -- obsessed with abortion, divorce, homosexuals, guns, and protecting antigovernment terrorists. And yet the old Republicans were no longer strong enough within the party to press their own agenda.

    As a result of this dynamic, Gingrich and other Republican leaders emerged from budget negotiations with the President absolutely empty-handed. They didn't have the backing within the party for tax cuts, and couldn't press for values measures without giving the President enough rhetorical ammo to punish them on the airwaves for weeks. With no tax cuts, no abortion bans, no nothing, what did the GOP have to offer its troops? Why would anyone come out on Election Day and vote Republican?

    That's where Monica Lewinsky came in.

    Tension between values Republicans and the party's traditional moderates had existed even before the party came to power, but it had always been muted by the Cold War. Northeastern Republicans hated communism because it didn't allow capital and freedom; Southerners hated communism because it didn't allow God. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the party was left with two wings that were fundamentally incompatible.

    Monica Lewinsky became a substitute for anticommunism. She was used to camouflage this policy deadlock by providing a standard around which all Republicans could rally, no matter how much their other politics diverged. That's why Gingrich spent much of the summer organizing impeachment hearings, and, in the waning days of the campaign, arranged a daring $10-million advertising campaign to saturate swing districts with reminders of the President's philandering. But it turns out that an office dalliance does not pack quite the same campaign punch as an imperialist power with gulags and ten thousand nuclear warheads. Particularly after the airing of the President's grand jury testimony on September 21, what Monica Lewinsky brought to the fore was the rickety nature of the Republican coalition and the smoke-and-mirrors reality of Gingrich's leadership.

    Gingrich the person has long been an electoral catastrophe for his party. At the very least, the Republicans will reap enormous benefits from having a more behind-the-scenes speaker, in the mold of Gingrich's predecessors. But Gingrich was only part of the problem, and his resignation should begin -- not end -- a long-overdue period of Republican soul-searching.

    Join the conversation in a special conference on paralysis in the GOP, in
    Post & Riposte.

    More on politics in Atlantic Unbound.

    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.
    Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search