Freed Radicals


"The party of George W. Bush is very much the party of Ronald
Reagan, " declared Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican
Party, in September 2003. It's a contention that one speaker after
another will echo at the Republican National Convention. But they
will be largely wrong. While there is continuity between the Reagan
and Bush GOPs--as evidenced by Bush's tax cuts, for example--the
outward similarities conceal a deeper truth: Bush's Republican
Party is far more conservative than Reagan's ever was.U.S. political parties are not like tightly organized European
parties. They contain different levels of formal and informal
leadership and membership-- ranging from elected politicians to
local and state party officials to partisan interest groups to core
voters. On each of these levels, the party that will gather in New
York City to renominate Bush is different from that of Reagan. In
Reagan's party, moderates, and even liberals, retained a strong
voice; in Bush's, they are barely audible. In Reagan's party,
conservatives complained of being ignored, and the religious right
was shut out of the party establishment; in Bush's party,
conservatives and the Christian Right no longer grumble. That's
because, today, they are the Republican Party.

Reagan's GOP brought together Sun Belt conservatives, such as
Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who were hostile to labor unions
and the New Deal but who also opposed government interference in
citizens' lives; Deep South conservatives, such as Strom Thurmond,
who had turned Republican when the Democrats backed racial
desegregation; a large group of moderates or "Old Guard"
Republicans, such as Kansas Senator Robert Dole, who supported the
New Deal but worried about budget deficits and welfare and who,
unlike the Deep South Republicans, still identified themselves as
members of the party of Lincoln; and a few Northeastern liberals,
such as Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz.

This diversity was reflected in Reagan's administration, but his
White House was actually dominated by moderates. These included
Vice President George H.W. Bush, who had criticized Reagan's
"voodoo economics"; White House Chief of Staff James Baker, who had
run Gerald Ford's and Bush's primary campaigns against Reagan; and
others like Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and Secretary of State
George Shultz. The most extreme Cabinet officials, such as Interior
Secretary James Watt, a fundamentalist who wanted to hand over the
wilderness to energy and timber interests, were forced to resign.
Republicans in Congress were even more centrist. They were led by
Dole, who advocated a tax increase in 1982 to keep the deficit
under control; Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, who was reviled by
conservatives for his support of the Panama Canal treaty; and
Illinois Representative Robert Michel, whom The Washington Post
described as an advocate of "consensus-oriented, non-ideological

Today's Congress, by contrast, is dominated by hard-line
conservatives. Texas Representative Tom DeLay, now the majority
leader, has virtually run the House of Representatives since Newt
Gingrich resigned six years ago. DeLay, Speaker Dennis Hastert, and
Majority Whip Roy Blount all boast 90-plus percent ratings on the
American Conservative Union and Christian Coalition scorecards, as
do all seven of the GOP's elected Senate leaders, from Majority
Leader Bill Frist and Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell to Chief
Deputy Majority Whip Bob Bennett and Policy Committee Chairman Jon

Bush's administration reflects this conservative predominance. The
most influential members are White House political adviser Karl
Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, and Attorney General John Ashcroft. The administration's
most notable moderate, Secretary of State Colin Powell, has been
marginalized, and will be conspicuously absent from this year's
convention (see Notebook, page 10). Its two other well-known
moderates, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and former
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman,
have resigned.

The main reason for this post-Reagan shift to the right is that the
party's geographical and political base changed with the 1994
election. Reagan's Republican Party was based in the Sun Belt and
the traditionally Republican Great Plains states, but it also
commanded support in the rest of the country. Between the 1980 and
1984 elections, Reagan won every state in the far West, Midwest,
and Northeast twice except for Minnesota, Maryland, Rhode Island,
and West Virginia. But, after Reagan's two terms and George H.W.
Bush's one, the GOP lost its hold on the far West and Northeast and
even parts of the Southern periphery, including Florida. In the
last three presidential elections, it hasn't won a single state on
the West Coast, and it has lost every Northeastern state except New
Hampshire (which it won in 2000 thanks to Ralph Nader).

As Republicans faltered in the far West, the Northeast, and the
Midwest, they became more dependent on their growing support in the
Deep South. Bush won the 2000 election because he carried the
entire South against Al Gore. Indeed, the GOP congressional
majority that emerged in 1994 was the culmination of the South's
transformation from conservative Democratic politics to
conservative Republican politics. Since 1994, Republicans have
continued to gain seats in the South while losing them in the rest
of the country. In 2000, the Republicans' eleven-seat advantage in
the House was due to an 18-seat advantage in Southern seats that
made up for a seven-seat deficit in the rest of the country. In
2002, the Republicans' larger 23-seat margin was due to a surplus
of 29 seats in the South.

As Republicans have become more dependent on the South for
victories, Southern Republicans, including Bush, Gingrich, DeLay,
Frist, Dick Armey, and Trent Lott, have become the party's leaders
(see Michael Lind, "The Southern Coup," June 19, 1995). And these
Southerners have shaped Republican politics to reflect the South's
racially tinged blend of economic individualism and social
conservatism. In the South, white working-class and middle-class
Southerners are often as disdainful of government as the
pro-business upper classes. Southern working-class whites used to
back the New Deal but turned against government in the 1960s, when
they began to identify it with handouts to minorities. In Politics
and Society in the South, political scientists Earl Black and Merle
Black write, "Many white southerners perceived themselves as being
forced to contribute, against their convictions and desires, to
programs for which blacks were highly visible beneficiaries."
Religion, too, has led Southerners to the conservative fold, as
working-class Christian fundamentalists, who, in other areas of the
country, might be economic liberals or populists, support tax cuts
and government-spending reductions.

This Southern conservatism now broadly defines Republican
conservatism. It is different from Goldwater's Sun Belt
libertarianism, with its emphasis on personal freedom, that was so
important to the Reagan coalition and that still accounts for some
of the appeal of California's tabloid governor, Arnold
Schwarzenegger, and Arizona's maverick senator, John McCain. The
Deep South's libertarianism is entirely economic. Its social
outlook, by contrast, is deeply intolerant and underlain by a
history of racism. This unsavory aspect of Southern white politics
is often hidden but has recently come to the fore in rural white
voters' support for Confederate symbols. (In Georgia's 2002
gubernatorial election, for example, Republican Sonny Perdue and
party chairman and former Christian Coalition President Ralph Reed
used the Confederate flag to curry rural white support against
Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes.)

Southern conservatism also has little of the smallbusiness,
anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street populism of Western and even Great
Plains conservatism. Southern whites like big business, and
Southern white Republicans have no hesitation about identifying
their party's cause with corporate America. (According to Merle
Black, the extensive election surveys conducted by the Center for
Political Studies from 1994 to 2000 show that 63 percent of white
Southerners who graduated or attended college were "warm" toward
"big business, " and only 21 percent were "cool.") Republican
conservatives from the right-to- work South display none of the
lingering support for unions and the New Deal that can be found
among Northern Republicans. Former Wall Street Journal columnist
Jude Wanniski, who advised Reagan on supply-side economics,
describes Gingrich and the conservatives who took power in 1994 as
wanting to "unwind the New Deal."

This move toward Southern conservatism opened the door to right-wing
political and religious organizations that had previously functioned
outside, rather than inside, the Republican party. During the
Reagan years, the conservative movement was dominated by the
Heritage Foundation in Washington and by a group of new-right
political committees housed in Northern Virginia. These
conservatives influenced the administration and the Republican
Party. But they weren't part of either. Conservatives backed Reagan
when Democrats attacked his tax program or his opposition to a
nuclear freeze with the Soviet Union, but they criticized him
vigorously for refusing to make banning abortion a priority and for
agreeing in 1982 to Dole's proposal to raise taxes in order to
forestall huge deficits. "In terms of having any real influence with
the Reagan administration, we just haven't had any," complained
Howard Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus, in Reagan's first
year. "All they've done is throw us a few bones to keep the dogs
from biting their heels." Two years later, conservative journalist
M. Stanton Evans lamented in a speech at the annual Conservative
Political Action Conference (cpac), "There has been no Reagan
revolution in Washington."

The religious right--represented by the Reverend Jerry Falwell's
Moral Majority and Liberty Federation and by the Reverend Pat
Robertson's Freedom Council--operated even further outside the
Republican establishment. Across the country, Christian activists
fought pitched battles with party stalwarts who, committed to an
older, more moderate Republicanism of balanced budgets and
small-business loans, wanted to prevent them from controlling or
even participating in party organizations. When a Falwell protg won
a Republican congressional primary in Muncie, Indiana, in 1986, the
GOP's county chairman warned, "If the Christian right becomes a
major portion of the [Republican] voting bloc, then it has the
potential to destroy it. We would lose our centrist base."

Over the last decade, however, spurred by the Republican takeover of
Congress and the triumph of Southern Republicanism, conservatives
and religious fundamentalists have become players in the Republican
Party. Conservative think tanks and organizations are less visible
than they were in the '80s, but many of their analysts and
operatives now work directly for the GOP, Republican members of
Congress, or the Bush administration. Today, the Heritage
Foundation has a lower profile, but that's not because Republicans
have moved away from its ideas; it's because they have embraced
them. Many of the people who, under Reagan and Bush I, would have
worked for Heritage are employed as Republican congressional
staffers. Says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax
Reform and a leader of the conservative movement, "Heritage is
dwarfed by the number of full policy guys in the House and Senate
who put out right-of- center analysis."

The Christian Right retains a separate identity but has been
integrated into national and state Republican activity
nevertheless, in part because Rove has made it a priority to
maintain contact with the movement. One of his top deputies,
Timothy Goeglein, a former aide to Gary Bauer at the Family
Research Council, serves as the administration's daily liaison to
conservative Christians, and Reed actually works for the Bush
campaign. In the House, Christian groups can look to DeLay as a
reliable ally, in a way they could never have looked to Michel.
And, according to University of Akron political scientist John C.
Green and Iowa State University's Kimberly Conger, Christian
conservatives have a significant presence in 44 Republican state
party organizations, and they control the balance of power in 18.

What's more, over the past decade, Christian and conservative groups
have learned to better coordinate their activities. In the Reagan
years, much of the conservative movement met annually in Washington
for the cpac meeting. But, outside of that, few of the groups
worked actively with each other. The Moral Majority had no dealings
with the National Rifle Association. Anti-abortion groups had no
ties to trade organizations. And the main business lobbies in
Washington remained studiously nonpartisan.

In the early '90s, however, Norquist took the lead in combining
these organizations into a functional coalition. In 1993, he
brought together representatives of anti-tax, property rights,
Second Amendment, Christian conservative, and other groups that
wanted to see the Clinton administration fail. Norquist initially
called the assemblage, which met monthly to plan strategy, the
"leave-it-alone" coalition. Later, it became the "center-right
coalition." With the Republican capture of Congress in 1994,
Norquist, working closely with Gingrich, Armey, and DeLay,
pressured the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of
Independent Business to send representatives to the meetings.
Norquist's coalition has now grown to several hundred groups and
meets separately in 46 states, as well as in Washington. Goeglein
regularly attends the meetings on the White House's behalf. Says
journalist Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation,
"The Grover Norquist meeting is very representative of the
Republican party and the conservative movement. You have Republican
party people, but you also have dozens and dozens of organizations,
which all get a place at the table."

Norquist's coalition represents the triumph of Southern conservative
ideology. The participants at the meetings combine the economic
individualism of the property rights and anti-tax movements with
the social conservatism of the religious right. "He has been very
successful at uniting these different wings," says Mark Bloomfield,
the president of the American Council for Capital Formation.

The new Republican coalition has the advantage of being far more
cohesive than the assemblage that supported Reagan. Reagan's
electoral coalition consisted of seemingly incompatible
constituencies--pro-choice suburbanites from New Jersey alongside
small-town fundamentalists from Alabama, anti- communist
Chinese-Americans from California alongside nativist white North
Carolinians. By contrast, the Bush coalition brooks few such
contradictions either in its base or in its supporting
organizations. Bush's conservative backing--and his Republican
support generally--has remained remarkably solid, even as
self-identified independents have deserted him. In a CBS poll last
February, 90 percent of Republican voters supported Bush, and he
bested Kerry among independents by 46 to 43 percent. By early
August, Bush had fallen behind Kerry among independents by 35 to 52
percent, but he was still backed by 88 percent of Republicans.

Yet, there are disadvantages to Bush's tightly knit conservative
coalition. Electoral majorities--from William McKinley's in 1896 to
Franklin Roosevelt's in 1932 to Reagan's in 1980--have always, by
necessity, been socially and politically heterogeneous. McKinley
drew together Northern labor and capital; Roosevelt combined the
urban North and the rural South. The new Republican conservative
coalition, however, achieves homogeneity at the expense of majority
support. America is not Cobb County, Georgia, or Midland, Texas,
writ large. Most Americans don't think government should be
dismantled and abortion outlawed. They don't want creationism
taught in schools or environmental regulations gutted.

And, because of that, the Republican Party's very success has put it
at risk. Though its rebirth as a Southern-based conservative party
allowed it to capture the White House and Congress, it also
hindered it from building a stable national political majority. In
the 2000 election, Bush and Rove clearly recognized the limitation
of the Republican base and attempted to reach beyond it by
advocating "compassionate conservatism." They hinted at tough
measures to curb HMOs. They muted Bush's stands on abortion and
even gay rights. And the strategy worked, gaining Bush enough
support among independents and Democrats to carry a
middle-of-the-road state like Missouri.

This year, Bush and Rove face the same daunting task. They need to
get their base to the polls, but they also need to capture swing
votes. That has become increasingly difficult, as continued
fighting in Iraq has diminished Bush's appeal as a war president
and the deficits created by tax cuts have ruled out new spending
proposals. Still, Bush and Rove will try. During the Republican
convention, they plan to spotlight moderates and mavericks like
Schwarzenegger, McCain, and New York Governor George Pataki. Bush
is also working on a set of proposals that will reportedly
refurbish his image as a compassionate conservative. If he
succeeds, he will probably be reelected. But, if he fails, the
seeds of failure planted in the election of 1994 and in the
transformation of the Republican Party will have finally taken

For more stories, like the New Republic on Facebook:

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools