Same Old Party

New leadership can't mend the rifts among Republicans in Congress.


Joshua Micah Marshall
November 20, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Will new House Speaker Bob Livingston's gentlemanly leadership save the Republican Party from itself? Don't bet on it. Livingston may throw fewer tantrums than Newt Gingrich. And Democrats may miss the impetuosity that made Gingrich such an easy target of ridicule. But the GOP's problems have never been about Newt's personality or the tactics he pursued.

Republicans have given wildly conflicting explanations for what went wrong with the party this year and led to its losses on Election Day. There's near-consensus that the party made a mistake by trusting the Monica Lewinsky scandal to rally anti-Clinton voters, and that it should have zeroed in on key issues like Social Security, tax cuts, education and health-care reform. But while some saw the election as requiring a new "compassionate conservatism" that recognizes the need for compromise, reaches out to minorities and shows voters how much Republicans care about their problems, others insist the party stumbled on Election Day because it failed to put forward a strong conservative agenda and thus its core voters didn't turn out.

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Those explanations point in opposite directions. And that's the heart of the Republicans' problem.

The fact is that Republicans never recovered from the government shutdown of 1995. The shutdown wasn't just a public relations disaster. It exposed a basic cleavage in the Republican Party, and the party has been in a state of functional paralysis ever since.

There are many ways to parse the Republican divisions. At one pole of the party, approximately 40 moderate Republicans, mostly from the Northeast, envision a centrist party based on a judicious cultivation of regional interests, prudent fiscal policy and a moderate cultural message. At the other pole is the group of roughly 70 conservative die-hards (who dub themselves the Conservative Action Team) who thought the GOP should force another government shutdown in the recent budget battle. The 95 House Republicans who voted to make Oklahoma's Steve Largent majority leader -- meaning they thought Dick Armey wasn't conservative enough -- might be described as the Die-hard Caucus.

Put most simply, there's a split between the party's reactionaries and its reformists. The reactionaries as a group can be traced, with relative continuity, to the first half of this century: vitriolic opponents of the New Deal, McCarthyite anti-Communists who oppose the secularism of American society, the internationalism of its foreign policy, and not just "welfare" but the entirety of the welfare state.

The reformists are a different breed. For them, the language of conservatism has operated less as a consuming ideology and more as a rhetoric of discontent -- discontent with the way the welfare state works, but not necessarily with its goals. Most still believe that the government should support education, ensure basic health and safety and protect programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The government shutdown in 1995 pulled these two groups apart. As long as the conservative movement was united in opposition to the welfare state, it could cover over the differences between its reformist and reactionary elements. And voters responded well to generalities about rolling back government excess and attacking its manifest inefficiencies. But when they saw what conservative ideologues tried to do in 1995 they got scared. And support for Republicans plummeted.

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Republicans only managed to retain their majority in 1996 by spending most of the year retreating from much of their original legislative agenda. And since then they've been caught in much the same bind: Put forward their agenda and risk a public backlash, or get-along-and-go-along with President Clinton and court a permanent state of rebellion on their right flank. That's why the Lewinsky scandal seemed like such a gold mine. It promised to energize the party's Christian conservative base, and it seemed at least like it would push middle-of-the-road suburban swing voters into the GOP column. All without having to push the divisive GOP policy agenda.

It wasn't an accident that the Republicans focused so much on Lewinsky. Lewinsky didn't distract the Republicans from pushing their agenda. The reality is that scandal has filled the void for Republicans because they haven't been able to work out the differences between the factions in their party.

Moderate Republicans reckon that if only the party could stick to the message of tax cuts and small government and not say those wacky things that scare the folks in the suburbs, then everything would be OK. But that middle ground doesn't exist for Republicans today. James Dobson, Gary Bauer and other grandees of the religious right are threatening fire and brimstone if the congressional Republicans don't start to deliver on the Christian conservative agenda. Even if conservative politicians were inclined to make a cynical move in the direction of moderation they would still be dependent on the votes of conservative die-hards who would find such a stance anathema. And it's not just their votes; Republicans are dependent on these core conservatives to impart energy and motion to the party. Without the ideological die-hards, the Republican Party really is little more than a party of the country clubs and the suburbs.

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Republicans who think that the Bush brothers can save the party are courting disappointment because the moderate Republican strategy has already been tried by, of all people, their father. Moderation was, after all, the project of the first Bush presidency, the message behind his election-year call for a "kinder, gentler America." But as the Bush years showed, Republicans have great difficulty energizing or communicating to a mass electorate without appeals to the sort of socially divisive issues that many Americans find repellent.

Those so-called wedge issues used to help the GOP win elections; but they haven't worked so well lately. The recent GOP-inspired California ballot initiatives to end affirmative action and penalize illegal aliens galvanized crucial constituencies and helped elect Republicans. But they tarnished the party's reputation in the rest of the country and, as the recent election showed, left the California GOP in shambles. Even in Washington state, where voters abolished affirmative action in this year's election, Republicans weren't able to ride that issue to victory. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray won reelection, while in suburban Seattle, U.S. Rep. Rick White was unseated by Democratic challenger and impeachment opponent Jay Inslee.

All across the board Republicans face the same basic problem: Moderating their sometimes abrasive image threatens to deprive them of their most enthusiastic supporters. That Catch-22 is well illustrated in the difficulties they face with Hispanics, African-Americans and other minority groups. It's true that Democrats can't rely on Hispanic voters to be a natural Democratic constituency. Republicans could devise a campaign message that played to Hispanic traditionalism on moral and social issues, much as George W. Bush has done in Texas. But sustaining Hispanic support in states like Texas and California would require avoiding conspicuous attacks on immigration, affirmative action and the Spanish language. And that's something the GOP has, and will continue to have, a very hard time doing.

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It's much the same with African-American voters. The election of J.C. Watts as Republican Conference chairman notwithstanding, to practice more than tokenism could alienate core voters. The party's mounting strength in the 1970s and '80s was based on making inroads among conservative Southern whites and appealing to the resentments that traditionally Democratic Northern, working-class ethnic voters felt against school busing and affirmative action. The GOP's problem with minorities isn't incidental; it's fundamental. Any genuine effort to aid minorities or the poor would instantly alienate a substantial portion of the Republican base. The Republicans can't be the party of black opportunity and anti-black resentment no matter how big the tent. The Democrats tried it; it didn't work.

The GOP's Achilles' heel is the fact that much of its underlying energy and support come from a section of the electorate that most of the country disagrees with. Some of this is due to the Southernization of the party. As Christopher Caldwell recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, Republicans have become increasingly beholden to the peculiar traditionalism of the South. And that betrothal to Southern cultural politics, which helped the GOP so much in the past, has now reached what he calls the "tipping point" -- the point at which it alienates more voters outside the South than it gains within it.

But there's more to it than that. There has always been a reactionary core of the American electorate located disproportionately, but by no means exclusively, within the South. The difference is that in past party configurations that reactionary core tended to be divided across partisan lines or submerged within larger political coalitions with broadly reformist impulses. In fact, for much of this century, both parties contained deeply conservative elements within their ranks. In the North these conservatives tended to be Republicans; in the South they tended to be Democrats. Another way of putting this is that there have always been segments of the American electorate that want to teach creationism in the public schools or believe that Kofi Annan is sending black helicopters to steal their lawn furniture. But seldom have they been so politicized on the issues that separate them from the bulk of the national electorate or so singularly identified with one political party.

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Capitalizing on the energy and commitment of these voters was key to the rise of the conservative Republican Party over the last generation. But now the chickens have come home to roost. That predicament is what is causing the present paralysis and confusion within Republican ranks. Bob Livingston is well-liked by many in the House on both sides of the aisle. And he may be an excellent legislative manager. But the basic division between the die-hards who want to take the revolution forward and the pragmatists who want to rein it in will still be there under his stewardship. There's little reason to think he'll be able to deal with it any better than Gingrich did.


Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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