Freed Radicals

by John B. Judis | September 6, 2004

"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 politics." 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 Kyl. 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 root.

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