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
by Christopher Caldwell
Atlantic Monthly Magazine
SHORTLY before the 1994 midterm elections, when House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich began talking about a coming Republican takeover of Congress and outlining plans for his speakership, David Dreyer, a White House aide, remarked, "He's done Lord Acton one better. He's corrupted by power he doesn't yet have." After Election Day it was Dreyer who had egg on his face. The Republicans did take over the House and the Senate, controlling the two for the first time since 1955 -- and by a broad enough margin that they seemed likely to hold both houses indefinitely. Everyone spoke of a "revolution" -- both politicians and the wider public, both those who favored and those who feared one. Pundits resurrected the decades-old metaphor of the political analyst Samuel Lubell, according to which America has essentially a one-and-a-half-party system. One party is the sun, illuminating all the planets. The other is the moon, giving off only reflected light. For the first time since before FDR's election, it looked as if Republicans were the sun and Democrats the moon.
Today Dreyer and others who scoffed at a Republican ascendancy seem likely to have the last laugh. There has indeed been a movement to the right on some issues, but it has not translated into a partisan shift. A stunning mid-1997 ABC/Washington Post poll, asking voters "Which party do you trust more to ...," showed the Democrats besting the Republicans on practically all issues, including such Republican staples as taxes, crime, and budget balancing.
Trust more to ... Democrats Republicans
Improve education 51% 30%
Help middle class 51% 30%
Handle economy 43% 39%
Hold down taxes 41% 38%
Balance budget 39% 36%
Handle crime 38% 34%
Handle foreign affairs 38% 40%
Reform campaign finance 34% 31%
Maintain strong defense 32% 50%
Suddenly it looked as if either the 1994 election was a fluke or the 104th Congress had done something dramatically wrong. The Republicans have narrowed the gap in party registration until they're only four percentage points behind the Democrats (39-35), but the Democrats still lead on the issues. The Republicans hold a majority in Congress, but that Congress has been trumped by a Democratic President on every major policy initiative of the past three years. And when a midwinter sex scandal initially sees the President's job-approval ratings rising to about 70 percent, the Republicans have cause for worry. There is now no sense in which they are the sun of American politics. Far from it: they are a majority giving rise to second thoughts among those who made them one.
This is something the Republicans seem not to realize. Their party was thrashed in the 1996 national elections. In presidential politics they were stuck on the Goldwater-McGovern-Mondale landslide-loser plateau of 40 percent, as they had been in 1992. They lost nine seats in Congress. Yet the party is approaching the 1998 election as if it won the last time out. Republicans of all persuasions view their party's problems as temporary, remediable through either ideological fine-tuning or image buffing and spin. Certain Republicans -- particularly cosmopolitan governors on the East and West Coasts, such as Christine Todd Whitman, of New Jersey, and Pete Wilson, of California -- claim that the party has moved too far to the right, and that its stances on social issues, notably abortion, are driving away centrist voters. Others -- particularly those at Christian organizations, such as Gary Bauer, of the Family Research Council, and James Dobson, of Focus on the Family -- say it's too far left, lacking the guts to assert itself on family dissolution and related family-values issues on which the public is in its corner. Still others -- among them such Class of '94 congressional firebrands as Steve Largent, of Oklahoma; Linda Smith, of Washington; and Mark Neumann, of Wisconsin -- say that the party has ignored centrist, Reform Party-style outrage and made itself a campaign-finance-swilling incumbency-protection machine. Another line of thinking is that the party has merely been victimized by accidents of personality: the mysterious ability of Newt Gingrich to generate loathing and of Bill Clinton to generate support.
Many, if not most, Republicans view the 1994 election as a mandate stolen from them by accidents of leadership and the collusion of the press and other "elite" institutions. In this reading Bill Clinton lifted "their" issues by mouthing conservative positions on the budget and welfare reform, and the credulous media have abetted Clinton's public-relations war of "micro-initiatives" such as school uniforms, the V-chip, portable phones for neighborhood-watch groups, and various small education proposals.
Republican problems go deeper than that, however. The party faces a crisis of confidence that has many symptoms -- repudiation in the most sophisticated parts of the country, widespread distrust of the Republican leadership, an inability to speak coherently on issues. All of them grow out of the same root cause: a vain search to rediscover the formula that made that unformulaic President, Ronald Reagan, so broadly appealing -- even beloved. Congressional Republicans triumphed decisively in 1994 on such Reaganite issues as free trade, welfare reform, and shrinking the government. But thanks to a deficit-dissolving economy and a dwindling memory of the Cold War, those issues were of declining importance even then, and they have given way to a bipartisan consensus. "Consensus," of course, is only another way of describing the issues that have been taken off the table. What remains for the party to talk about? On first thought, not much. The Republican strategist Ed Gillespie says, "We're like the dog that caught the bus."
Now that there is no longer any force on the political landscape to challenge their general principles, the Republicans are clinging to power, even as they grow confused about what exactly they are supposed to do with it. They are infuriating voters by blaming them at every turn for the party's failure to win their hearts. In other words, the Republicans are looking more and more like the Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s, and less and less like the party that overthrew them.
SINCE the 1960s Republican gains at the national level have been built on two trends. One is regional -- the capture of more and more southern seats. The other is sociological -- the tendency of suburbanites to vote Republican. The party's 1994 majority came thanks to a gain of nineteen seats in the South. In 1996 Republicans picked up another six seats in the Old Confederacy. But that only makes their repudiation in the rest of the country the more dramatic. The party has been all but obliterated in its historical bastion of New England, where it now holds just four of twenty-three congressional seats. The Democrats, in fact, dominate virtually the entire Northeast. The Republicans lost seats in 1996 all over the upper Midwest -- Michigan, Wisconsin (two seats), Iowa, and Ohio (two seats). Fatally, they lost seats in all the states on the West Coast. Their justifiable optimism about the South aside, in 1996 it became clear that the Democratic Party was acquiring regional strongholds of equal or greater strength.
As Walter Dean Burnham, a political scientist at the University of Texas, has noted, the 1996 elections almost diametrically oppose those of 1896. (See maps below.) Anyone who is today middle-aged or older was born in a country with a solidly Democratic South and a predominantly Republican Midwest and Northeast, and probably will die in a country in which the Republicans hold the Old Confederacy and the Democrats dominate from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. In effect, the two parties have spent the twentieth century swapping regional power bases.
Since it is the southern and mountain states -- the Republican base -- that are adding voters, congressional seats, and electoral votes, this constituency-trading was supposed to be all gravy for the Republicans. It isn't. The bad news for the party in 1996 was not so much regional as sociological. In the suburbs -- home to 40 percent of voters, by conservative estimates -- Clinton ran even with Bob Dole. Clinton won among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in 1996 and 1992, reversing Reagan and Bush victories among that cohort in 1984 and 1988, and he also won among Catholics, who had voted Republican in the three previous elections. (In Congress the Republicans won the Catholic vote for the first time ever in 1994; one election later they were routed, by 53 to 45 percent.)
And the Republicans lost heavily among Hispanics, America's fastest-growing voting bloc, who added 1.5 million voters from 1992 to 1996, and will probably add as many again by the next presidential election. This alarming result confounded an earlier Republican optimism. Democrats who had arrogantly assumed that standard-issue minority politics would easily pull Hispanics into the party fold were proved wrong throughout the 1980s. Hispanic voters turned out to be disproportionately entrepreneurial and disproportionately receptive to Republican family-values rhetoric, and gave the party roughly a third of their votes in the three presidential elections from 1980 to 1988. Leaving aside Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, who do fit the Democrats' minority paradigm, the Republicans were doing better with the Hispanic vote than might be expected.
But the Republicans in the 104th Congress tried to shore up their Texas and California right wings with hostile rhetoric on immigration. They passed legislation that sought to deprive not just illegal but also legal immigrants of federal benefits. (Newt Gingrich and other Republicans backpedaled in 1997, reversing some of the measures, but the damage was done.) And California's Proposition 187, supported by Republican Governor Pete Wilson and aimed at denying benefits to illegal immigrants, brought angry Hispanics to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Clinton took 72 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, including 81 percent in Arizona and 75 percent in California; he took 78 percent of Hispanics under thirty. He nearly split the Hispanic vote even in Florida, where 97 percent of the Cuban population voted for Reagan in 1984.
The hardening loyalty of Hispanics is a catastrophe for the Republicans' presidential prospects. According to census projections, by 2025 the country's two most populous states, California and Texas, will be 43 and 38 percent Hispanic respectively. And earlier in the decade California was hemorrhaging Republicans anyway, owing to what could be called the Fuhrman effect: a large secondary migration of older, middle-class whites who appear to have lost patience with the multiracial, multicultural society already in evidence in the state, and have moved to Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and other more solidly Republican states of the intermountain West.
These in- and out-migrations, coupled with the growth of lifestyle liberalism and federal Democrats' careful nurturing of West Coast interests, could make California close to unwinnable for Republicans. That would put the White House, too, out of reach for a long time. The only Democrat ever to win California and lose the presidency, after all, was Winfield Hancock -- who was defeated by James Garfield in 1880, when the state had six electoral votes.
THESE sociological and geographic shifts are part of a broad change in party allegiance. No one has been more astute in outlining its nature than the Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein, who set the pattern for Republican triumphs in the 1980s by running aggressive, ideological campaigns that went after Democratic candidates for their uncommonsensical "liberalism" -- a word that was repeated almost hypnotically in the ads and speeches he wrote. Of late Finkelstein has been criticized by some of his candidates outside the Northeast, largely for having the temerity to suggest that this message must be broadened now that liberals are drubbing Republicans on a range of new issues. These are issues on which the party has historically been silent -- education, the environment, and health care, for example. The absence of a Republican voice on them helps to explain why the party has scraped up only about 40 percent of the vote for two presidential elections running.
Finkelstein uses a simple graphic device to show his Republican candidates, geographically, just how differentiated the country is. Put a pen point on Washington, D.C., and draw your way across a map of the continental United States, edging up between Iowa and Nebraska, running through the Dakotas and Montana, dropping down through Washington and Oregon and along the western border of Nevada into California, and then heading back east, with the tips of Texas and Florida south of the line. The box that results leaves you with two different political countries. (See map.) The Finkelstein Box refutes a long-standing axiom among political consultants: that as people prosper and grow more educated and cosmopolitan, they become more likely to be Republicans. In states that have their largest population centers outside the box, no Republican senatorial candidate got a majority in the last election. Inside the box no Democrat got a majority except Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana (and that barely). Although most Republican governors outside the box are pro-choice, almost every single Republican governor inside the box is pro-life.
The Republican Party is increasingly a party of the South and the mountains. The southernness of its congressional leaders -- Speaker Newt Gingrich, of Georgia; House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, of Texas; Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, of Mississippi; Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, of Oklahoma -- only heightens the identification. There is a big problem with having a southern, as opposed to a midwestern or a California, base. Southern interests diverge from those of the rest of the country, and the southern presence in the Republican Party has passed a "tipping point," at which it began to alienate voters from other regions.
As southern control over the Republican agenda grows, the party alienates even conservative voters in other regions. The prevalence of right-to-work laws in southern states may be depriving Republicans of the socially conservative midwestern trade unionists whom they managed to split in the Reagan years, and sending Reagan Democrats back to their ancestral party in the process. Anti-government sentiment makes little sense in New England, where government, as even those who hate it will concede, is neither remote nor unresponsive.
The most profound clash between the South and everyone else, of course, is a cultural one. It arises from the southern tradition of putting values -- particularly Christian values -- at the center of politics. This is not the same as saying that the Republican Party is "too far right"; Americans consistently tell pollsters that they are conservative on values issues. It is, rather, that the Republicans have narrowly defined "values" as the folkways of one regional subculture, and have urged their imposition on the rest of the country. Again, the nonsoutherners who object to this style of politics may be just as conservative as those who practice it. But they are put off to see that "traditional" values are now defined by the majority party as the values of the U-Haul-renting denizens of two-year-old churches and three-year-old shopping malls.
Southerners now wag the Republican dog. How did the party let that happen?
THROUGHOUT the 1980s the Reagan coalition -- economic and social libertarians on the one hand, and largely Christian "social issues" voters on the other -- were in rough balance. If anything, southern Christians were the low men on the Reaganite totem pole, coddled far less than tax activists in the prosperous coastal cities. That Reagan paid only lip service to pro-life activists during their annual Washington marches still rankles the party's southern wing. Although he several times sent a message by phone hookup, he never once greeted them on the Mall.
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, disputes that the two wings were ever at odds, and insists that libertarians and moralists can still cohabit. And since Norquist is a key -- if not the key -- adviser to Newt Gingrich, his interpretation can be taken as a semi-official Republican understanding of what's left of Ronald Reagan's electorate. "The Reagan coalition is the Leave Us Alone coalition," Norquist says. "Tax activists want their paychecks left alone. Pro-family people want their kids left alone. Ralph Reed's constituents are not interested in running other people's lives. They don't care what odd people do in San Francisco on Saturday afternoon."
For his part, Reed, formerly the executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a Georgia-based political and public-affairs consultant, thinks the two wings get along as well as ever. Looking at the Republican field for President in 2000, he says, "Traditional supply-siders like Steve Forbes are enthusiastically embracing the social dogma of the party. Lamar Alexander is moving to the right, guys like John Ashcroft are picking up steam, John Kasich is talking about faith in God. I see a holistic message developing." To an extent Reed is right: this is not 1963 or 1964, when the Rockefeller wing and the Goldwater wing fought an intraparty civil war. Yet there is something more troubling going on. Every Republican candidate now has to "make his bones," to prove his good faith by declaring his unequivocal willingness to alienate the "elites" of the country. Describing the Christian right to a reporter last fall, the former Washington congressman Randy Tate, who is now the executive director of the Christian Coalition, said, "They don't just want to be given crumbs off the table and taken for granted." Far from proving Republican tolerance, the rapprochement Reed points to is merely the sound of the Republicans' cosmopolitan wing crying "Uncle."
This southern takeover is part of a natural, if paradoxical, transformation. It parallels the way the Goldwater debacle of 1964 destabilized the Democratic Party -- by sending alienated northern Republican progressives into the Democrats' ranks. These progressives joined with northern urbanites to forge a party that was more to their liking, though it was too liberal for the Democratic Party's stalwart southern conservatives -- and, eventually, too liberal for the nation as a whole. In like fashion, Democratic excesses since the seventies may have destabilized the Republican Party by chasing those southerners into the fold, transforming the Republican Party into a machine that is steadily becoming too conservative for the country.
There has always been tension between the Republicans' constituent wings. What long masked it was the Cold War. The Reaganite party was never a two-part but always a three-part coalition, of social conservatives, economic conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks. The hawks' group was minuscule, but it happened that their passion (anti-communism) was shared by Christians and capitalists alike. This was a passion that Democrats -- with a few notable exceptions, including Senator Scoop Jackson, of Washington -- were renouncing by the mid-1970s. Foreign-policy hawkishness became a permanent electoral advantage for the Republicans, but just as important, it became the party's internal glue. When the Cold War ended, the coalition lost its last point of common ground. As one Republican consultant says, "In 1992 we go to Houston, and Jack Kemp and Pat Buchanan look up at one another and say, 'What the hell are you doing in my party?'"
The Republicans have been, in a word, "McGovernized." We think of McGovernization as a Democratic problem, largely because George McGovern was a South Dakota Democrat when he led a commission that reformed party structures three decades ago, increasing the importance of state primaries and thus shifting power away from compromise-oriented national conventions. Not incidentally, McGovern went on to suffer electoral humiliation in the first presidential election conducted under the reforms. The Republicans, too, soon adopted boss-proof electoral rules. These reforms were implemented just when money and television were driving politics away from "local" issues (that is, bread-and-butter ones) and toward "national" issues (that is, ideological ones). One party was bound to win and one to lose. In retrospect -- and it was only the aftermath of Richard Nixon's disgrace that blinded people to it at the time -- the ideological configuration of the country in the 1970s gave the Republican right a monumental advantage over the Democratic left. What was the 1976 Reagan movement if not a McGovernized groundswell?
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Overideologization is beginning to work against the Republicans. At the 1996 convention Christian conservatives moved to make their intraparty advantage permanent and institutional, much as racial and social liberals had done before the 1972 Democratic convention. Control over appointments to the Resolutions Committee was wrested from the national chairman and given to the (largely hard-line) delegates. Organized interest groups of the values right thus grew strong enough to bend the party to their own interests, at the expense of the party's. An unstoppable McGovernesque radicalization was under way.
At a January Republican National Committee meeting near Palm Springs delegates defeated -- handily, but only after much effort -- an initiative to withhold campaign funds from Republicans who didn't oppose late-term, "partial-birth" abortion. It should be noted that three quarters of Americans back Republicans on the merits of the issue -- it may be their single best issue at present. But the vote was not about partial-birth abortion, because there are only a half dozen Republican congressional candidates in the entire country who would have been affected by the initiative. If more evidence were necessary that sectional interests trump party ones, last fall the National Right to Life Committee began running ads against pro-life congressmen, including the Republican Zach Wamp, of Tennessee, for supporting a campaign-finance reform that the NRLC feared would threaten its ability to raise money.
At the same time, the abortion issue illustrates that the problems of a southernized Republican Party are not simply a matter of how far right the party is. Opinion on abortion has swung sharply toward the Republican position since the controversy over partial-birth abortions began. A January ABC poll found that the statement "A woman should be able to get an abortion if she decides she wants one no matter what the reason" drew the lowest level of support (50-47) it has since early in the Reagan Administration. Even so, polls asking Americans, in effect, which party they trust more on the subject aren't budging. Why not? Many Republican politicians complain off the record about party rhetoric on social issues. It's not the issue of abortion that's driving people away, they argue, so much as it is the broader cultural claims of those who put it forward.
In this sense, conservative Christians are to the Republican Party what blacks were to the Democrats in the 1970s: its most loyal troops, the source of its most talented activists, its moral core. For that reason they are also the main source of radicalization and overreach. The activists who in the 1970s married the Democratic Party to a caricature of black interests burdened the party with busing, affirmative action, leniency on crime -- all unpopular issues. As voters began to drift away, Democrats resorted to ever-more-preposterous accusations of Republican "racism." From there it was easy for the Republicans to taunt the Democrats into pursuing policies that taxed the patience even of moderate voters. Attacks on the Democrats for coddling "welfare queens" worked politically less because of their substance than because they goaded the Democrats into defending the worst kind of welfare abuse.
But there is an easily overlooked difference between southern Christian Republicans and black Democrats -- or any Democratic group, for that matter. The great Democratic electoral liability has always been that the party is a congeries of constituencies -- blacks, the welfare-dependent, Jews, union members, feminists, teachers -- the loss of any one of which can cost an election. None of the individual Democratic constituencies can produce a commanding majority on its own, but for that reason none is particularly frightening, either. Southern-style Christians are a powerful bloc in a way that none of the Democratic blocs is. Ed Goeas, the president of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling organization, routinely includes in his polls the question "Has something happened in your life that has caused a recommitment to Christ?" Forty-three percent of respondents answer yes. This is a big enough bloc to take over not just a party but a country.
The bet that Republicans are making is that the South will add congressional seats and electoral votes faster than the rest of the country grows alienated from the party's southern message. Most members of the party are content with this arrangement, but they're also hoping that the South can be transformed enough to keep voters elsewhere from fleeing the party in droves. "I think the South is a new South," says the Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg, of California. "You'll see southern cities that are more progressive."
"On the other hand," Steinberg admits, "the North doesn't exactly realize that."
AGAIN, it is simplistic to see Republican politics as merely too far right, particularly at a time when the difference in total spending between Clinton's and Congress's budget proposals, for instance, is just a fraction of a percentage point. But it's understandable that voters have found Republicans "frightening," given the dovetailing of southern Republican anti-government rhetoric with that of right-wing terrorists. From this standpoint the two signal events of the 104th Congress were the Oklahoma City bombing, on April 19, 1995, and the government shutdowns of 1995-1996, advanced in a belligerent rhetoric of "revolution" that, according to Goeas and other pollsters, Americans distrusted -- and none more so than the Republicans' own base.
On the morning that Timothy McVeigh sent hundreds of innocents to their graves, the lead story in all the major newspapers was President Clinton's disastrous speech of the night before, the low point of his entire presidency, in which he argued pathetically that he was still "relevant" to the country's politics. Clinton's numbers quickly began to turn around. Newt Gingrich's popularity, meanwhile, remained strikingly low. Gingrich called "pathetic" the media's conflation of his "revolution" and McVeigh's. But the court of public opinion is not a court of law, and politicians who show too much overlap with a force that Americans consider a genuine menace are punished for it, as the Democrats were during the Cold War.
And, like the Democrats of the seventies and eighties, the Republicans in the aftermath of Oklahoma City compounded the problem through their nitpicking libertarian indifference to Americans' fears about armed violence. In thrall to their supporters in the National Rifle Association, the Republicans were soon trying to repeal a 1994 assault-weapons ban, after a brief post-bombing breather. And what could be more like the Democrats' "coddling of criminals" circa 1975 than the Republican attack on "taggants" in the 1996 terrorism bill? Congressional Republicans, in the name of the Second Amendment, fought to prevent the use of chemicals that would allow plastic explosives to be traced. This kind of procedural excuse for letting murderers walk led one analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation to coin the term "ACLU Republicans."
An apt parallel. If Christians are the blacks of the Republican coalition, then the NRA is its ACLU. The Republicans are not yet as beholden to their special-interest groups -- their marksmen, polluters, and plutocrats -- as Democrats are to their teachers' unions and race agitators, their feminists and ambulance chasers. But guns are special. The bipartisan political consultant Dick Morris maintains that the single most destructive interest group on the right is the NRA. Representative Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, holds guns -- not abortion -- to blame for the gender gap. Rabidly pro-gun rhetoric has succeeded in putting the Democrats on the side of the cops and crime control, Republicans on the side of criminals and crime. Suddenly, in the wake of Oklahoma City, Americans noticed that it was conservatives, not liberals, who assailed the FBI and railed against putting 100,000 cops on the streets. It was the NRA, not the ACLU, that was raising money by attacking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as "jackbooted thugs." Today it is the right, not the left, on which suspicion falls first whenever a bomb goes off. The identification of Gingrich with McVeigh may have been excessive, but there was no denying that sometime since the Reagan Administration the Republicans had replaced the Democrats as the To-Hell-in-a-Handbasket Party, the party more congenial to haters of America.
THE rhetorical corner that the Republicans got stuck in after Oklahoma City convinced many of them of what non-Republicans had known for months: that the party had a major problem in its leader, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. First, in his self-aggrandizement. Gingrich set the tone by initially accepting a multimillion-dollar book advance from HarperCollins even before the start of his speakership, a speakership in which he was planning to ask Americans to make a number of difficult sacrifices. (After an uproar he announced that he would forgo the advance.) Second, in a nails-on-the-blackboard loquacity that shows no sign of abating. Last January, outlining his "vision for America" before the Cobb County (Georgia) Chamber of Commerce, Gingrich suggested that students read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence: "It will do all of us good if every child begins to learn that they're endowed by the Creator and, by the way, so is the person next to them," he said. Fine, so far, even inspiring -- but then came the hallmark, cannot-shut-up Gingrich touch: "... So, if you're a rapist, the person you're raping is endowed by God."
Asked at a press conference last September whether he worried that Gingrich was making headway in attacking the Internal Revenue Service, Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary, responded, "Since I think the speaker, last time I checked, is probably one institution in American political life less popular than the IRS, the more he wants to get up and talk, I guess the better off we are." He's right: as a former college professor, Gingrich suffers from the stereotype developed by George Wallace but raised to an art by Republicans. He's a "pointy-head" -- strange, abstract, condescending, with radical plans for reshaping society even though he's never had a job in the real world.
Under Gingrich's leadership the Republicans have not merely replaced the Democrats of the 1980s; they have become them. Gingrich was foremost among Republicans in diagnosing the corruption of the incumbency-protection system that Democratic majorities had consolidated in the wake of Watergate. The Democrats created ever-proliferating subcommittees, controlling ever-more-capricious regulations, to coerce big political donors into giving the party a campaign-finance monopoly. From 1973 on Gingrich called the system a "dictatorship." But he owes his rise not to his diagnosis of the system but to his mastery of it. Last year Gingrich was hit with a $300,000 fine for using tax-exempt donations for political purposes and for giving false information to the House Ethics Committee. And since coming to power Gingrich's Republicans have been inclined to inhabit, rather than demolish, the corrupt edifice that the Democrats built. Whip Tom DeLay is said to keep lists of "friendly" and "unfriendly" PACs, and has made clear to lobbyists that they will have to send more-conservative operatives to Capitol Hill if they want to get business done.
For much of his tenure Gingrich's approval ratings have hovered in the twenties, even dropping into the teens at times, and the Republican Party suffers to the extent that he's viewed as a national leader. Although profile-oriented news media have certainly played a role in identifying the party with its least popular member, Gingrich bears the lion's share of blame. Early in the 1980s, after all, the Republicans sought to forge precisely such a direct identification between Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Party. It didn't work, because O'Neill explicitly rejected it, saying that he was elected only by his constituents. Which is true. It's true of Gingrich, too. But Gingrich has treated descriptions of him as the Republican "leader" as an opportunity to compare himself to Churchill, Eisenhower, and FDR, as the former representative Susan Molinari remarked in her recent book.
IT is taxes and spending, the Republicans' bread and butter, that best show how superannuated the party's agenda is. Just as the Democratic Party fell apart in the seventies and eighties when it could add no more to its proudest achievement, the social safety net, the Republicans are finding that their tax revolution is complete and they have no more reforms to offer the public that are sensible even on their own terms.
However much the Democrats may have derided Reaganomics, and however haphazardly it may have been implemented, its central insight -- that beyond a certain level taxes retard investment, hinder economic growth, and lead to declining tax revenues -- was merely common sense. At the beginning of the Reagan Administration taxes were indeed at such a level -- 70 percent for top earners. Today, with top marginal rates in the 30s, they're not. In a climate like this not only do tax cuts always produce less revenue, but modest tax hikes, such as the ones in Clinton's 1993 budget, produce more. Particularly now that U.S. interest rates are highly competitive in a rapidly globalizing capital market, tax cuts can no longer be justified on supply-side grounds. With the budget back in balance (owing partly to Clinton's rate hikes for top earners), and with voters leery of going back into the red, tax cuts are hard to defend on political grounds, too.
There is, however, a way that Republicans can keep promising to cut taxes. The old-fashioned way: by cutting spending. This should play to a Republican strength, because cutting spending means shrinking government, which has always been the noblest and most stirring part of the Republican philosophy, because it means giving people more freedom -- and, arguably, not just economic freedom. In 1994 the Republicans promised exactly that with the Contract With America, the list of ten propositions -- tax cuts, social-service cuts, and such government reforms as term limits -- announced as a manifesto six weeks before the 104th Congress was voted into office. There were two problems with the contract. First, two thirds of Americans didn't know it existed. Second, Republican polling, done by Frank Luntz, had been fraudulently presented to the public as showing that the contract commanded 60 percent support in all its particulars. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, in fact, found that people disagreed, by 45 to 35 percent, "with most of what the GOP House is proposing to do."
The structural reforms in the contract were the most popular of its items -- although all the Republicans promised to do was to bring them to a vote. The Republicans never succeeded in passing the electoral reforms (like term limits) explicit in the contract. Nor could they have, as they well knew, given the impossibility of winning enough Senate votes. What's more, running as the "revolutionary" overthrowers of a corrupt system tends to produce self-delegitimizing victories. If the reform-minded "Perot voters" who played such a big role in the Republicans' 1994 victory were preoccupied with systemic -- not economic or cultural -- matters, then the very fact that the Republicans could get elected to a majority robbed the party of an issue.
It was the small-government part of the contract that Gingrich publicized and pursued most forcefully. In a series of maneuvers that owed much to his dismal tactical judgment, the new Republican majority frightened voters with what appeared to be a recklessly anti-government agenda. Most famous were the two government shutdowns in the winter of 1995-1996, but there were smaller confrontations as well: over school lunches, whose federal subsidies the Republicans wanted to eliminate; over disaster relief to the flooded Midwest, which Republicans held up to win budget concessions; over tax cuts that almost exactly matched Medicare cuts ... These minor incidents mobilized much of the American public on behalf of a cause it didn't know it espoused: keeping government roughly the same size.
Gingrich had maneuvered the Republicans into a position where either they stood for the noblest kind of self-reliance and freedom or they stood for nothing. As soon as self-reliance was shown to be a bit less popular than Frank Luntz's bogus polling had assured them it would be, they decided they stood for nothing. There were still plenty of opportunities to carve out positions defending freedom against Democratic depredations. But the Republicans wanted none of it. Look at cigarettes: for all the money the party has received from tobacco interests, it is now seemingly impossible to find a Republican who will publicly disassociate himself from the largely Democratic campaign to regulate smoking. Look at affirmative action, the linchpin of the Democratic Party's monopoly on black votes: a petrified Gingrich was soon trying to bottle up in committee a bill that would have abolished it. In 1996 the Republicans chose as their presidential nominee Bob Dole, the archetypal stalwart of liberal-Republican support for the welfare state.
The Republicans have been on the defensive ever since. If they would abandon in a matter of months what they had proclaimed to be the heart and soul of their mission, then either they had been disgraceful panders all along or they were just as reckless as their opponents had said. They suddenly had the worst of both worlds. They were indeed too far to the right for much of the country on social issues. But they were too far to the left for the base that had sacrificed so much to bring them to this point.
To be fair, even if the Republicans were serious about shrinking government (and they're not), there are good structural reasons that people would begin to desert the party despite accepting its small-government message. There must be a reason that countries all over the world have demanded reforms in their welfare states -- and entrusted the more statist parties, which created the rickety structures in the first place, to enact those reforms. The reason may be this: A welfare state that funds itself on a pay-as-you-go basis, as all welfare states do, creates a "vesting problem." Voters, even voters who think of the Great Society as a con game and a wretched investment, are on the hook for somewhere between a quarter and half of the money they've earned in their lives. The costs are already sunk. The benefits, however, are in most cases delayed until retirement. Voters will thus be inclined to look kindly on the party that promises to defend the benefits they've already paid for, and to look askance at the party that says, "Just trust me." Particularly when that party is led by a pointy-headed, never-met-a-payroll academic like Newt Gingrich.
The Republicans' loss on the Contract With America set up a chain reaction of political catastrophe. When they gave up small government, they gave up any credible tax plan as well. Too bad: tax cuts were the part of Republicanism that everyone loved, provided the deficit was kept in check. When the Republicans can no longer promise tax cuts, they're left with only the most abrasive aspects of the Reagan message, kept under wraps throughout the 1980s: the southern morals business. If the Republicans didn't believe in shrinking government, they didn't believe in the freedom that it was supposed to promote -- which made it much harder to argue that their moral agenda was being advanced in the name of live and let live. And what did they have besides the moral agenda? A grab bag of minor issues dredged up from 1988: school choice, the Strategic Defense Initiative, tort reform, abortion. Worthy issues all, but none of them capable of winning elections.
So the Republicans, unable to promise tax cuts credibly, have decided to promise them incredibly. What's new is the language: regressivizing taxes is now couched in terms of abolishing the IRS and instituting a flat tax that you can file by filling out a postcard. Of course, since investment income is exempt from taxes under most flat-tax plans, the program is destined to be popular only until some Democratic strategist writes an ad showing that Steve Forbes would pay zero taxes on his enormous stock portfolio. The old Republican program to abolish estate taxes is advanced as the abolition of the "death tax." Even on entitlement reform, Gingrich's talk of "privatizing" Social Security has now yielded to rhetoric about giving taxpayers "personal accounts."
This is little more than a marriage of Reaganite issues -- on which the Republicans have already won their victory -- to Clintonite sweet talk. The Republicans would like to think that Americans are the dupes of a lecherous Arkansas sleazeball, just as the Democrats in the 1980s saw voters as gulled by a senile B-movie warmonger. But Clinton's success, like Reagan's, has to do with American beliefs and the extent to which he embodies them and his opponents do not.
THERE is an ideological component to Clinton's success and the Republicans' failure. The end of the Cold War, the increasing significance of information technology, and the growth of identity politics have caused a social revolution since the badly misunderstood 1980s. It's difficult to tell exactly what is going on, but in today's politics such subjects for discussion as Communist imperialism and welfare queens have been replaced by gay rights, women in the workplace, environmentalism, and smoking. On those issues the country has moved leftward. In 1984 the Republicans held a convention that was at times cheerily anti-homosexual, and triumphed at the polls. In 1992 the party was punished for a Houston convention at which Pat Buchanan made his ostensibly less controversial remarks about culture war. Reagan's Interior Secretary James Watt once teasingly drew a distinction between "liberals" and "Americans" while discussing water use, and pushed a plan to allow oil drilling on national wildlife refuges. By 1997 the New Jersey Republican Party was begging its leaders to improve the party's image by joining the Sierra Club.
This is in part a story of how successful parties create their own monsters. Just as Roosevelt's and Truman's labor legislation helped Irish and Polish and Italian members of the working class move to the suburbs (where they became Republicans), Reaganomics helped to create a mass upper-middle class, a national culture of childless yuppies who want gay rights, bike trails, and smoke-free restaurants. One top Republican consultant estimates that 35 to 40 percent of the electorate now votes on a cluster of issues created by "New Class" professionals -- abortion rights, women's rights, the environment, health care, and education. He calls it the "Hillary cluster." The political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain calls it, more revealingly, "real politics."
And with this new landscape of issues Republicans aren't even on the map. Because of the Reagan victory, the Democrats went through the period of globalization and the end of communism amid self-doubt and soul-searching. The experience left them a supple party that quickly became familiar with the Hillary cluster. Bill Clinton's ideology here is necessarily an inchoate one, and in his heart of hearts he may be to the left of where the country is. But he is the first President to understand that the Hillary cluster is not on one side or the other of a partisan fault line (and that is his greatest contribution to American politics). The American people are not "for" or "against" gay rights. They overwhelmingly say they favor equal rights for gays -- but then draw the line at gays in the military. They're for AIDS-research funding -- but think gays are pushing their agenda too fast. Americans aren't "for" or "against" environmentalism. They believe that global warming is going on -- but waffle on whether major steps should be taken to block it. They have shown a tolerance for paying more taxes to protect the environment, but few list it as their No.1 concern when asked by pollsters.
Such jagged political fault lines make Americans' ideology look ambiguous by old definitions. In fact, the Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe doubts whether the old polarity of "conservatives" and "liberals" is any longer meaningful, at least on the increasingly important cultural issues. The big question is whether this blending of conservatives and liberals is happening at the party level -- whether President Clinton has effected a wholesale change in his party. Ed Goeas and other Republican pollsters say there's no indication that Clinton is enticing people back to the Democrats. The best evidence, however, from 1996 exit polls is that the Democrats are no longer a liberal party -- or at least they are far less liberal than the Republicans are conservative. Whereas 58 percent of Republicans identify themselves as conservative, only a third of Democrats identify themselves as liberal.
To the Republicans, it doesn't much matter. They've missed all of this, and continue to campaign against the Democrats they wish they were contesting: against Jimmy Carter and his economy, against George McGovern and his foreign policy, against Jesse Jackson and his urban policy. They treat the past two presidential elections -- the worst back-to-back disasters that either party has suffered since Roosevelt clobbered Herbert Hoover and Alf Landon in 1932 and 1936 -- as aberrations, much as certain Democrats throughout the eighties insisted that the only "typical" elections since Truman were in 1960 and 1976. According to Jim Chapin, for decades a New York Democratic activist and now the senior policy adviser to the city's public advocate, "Republicans remind me of us in the late seventies and early eighties. They say, 'If you lay our policies out without telling people whose policies they are, they approve of them.' So what! Voters are merely making judgments based on the credibility of the party as an institution. And they're right. In 1980 I knew if people understood what many liberal Democrats really wanted, our vote would go down."
People are finding out that the Republicans don't want anything at all, other than to re-elect enough of their members to keep enjoying the fruits of a congressional majority. Lacking a voice on the new 1990s issues, the Republicans are retreating to the issues on which they used to have a voice. In this they resemble those "boomerang kids" who after their first career reversal return home in their late twenties to live with their parents. Republicans are going home to Ronald Reagan but are finding that theirs is no longer the only house on the block promoting the most popular part of his agenda -- free-market economics. They're finding that there's nothing to do around the house except dress up their old ideas in the clothes of Clintonite insincerity. Where is the broad argument of a "natural majority" here?
There is none. The Republicans are too conservative: their deference to their southern base is persuading much of the country that their vision is a sour and crabbed one. But they're too liberal, too, as their all-out retreat from shrinking the government indicates. At the same time, the Republicans have passed none of the reforms that ingratiated the party with the "radical middle." The Republicans' biggest problem is not their ideology but their lack of one. Stigmatized as rightists, behaving like leftists, and ultimately standing for nothing, they're in the worst of all possible worlds.
That's why the Republicans have spent the past several months waiting for a Clinton scandal to blossom. Like the Democrats of the 1970s, they are now the party with a stake in institutional disruption and bad news. And their resemblance to the corrupt dynasty they overthrew does not stop there. Their party is now directionless, with only two skills to recommend it: first, identifying and prosecuting the excesses of its opponents; second, rigging the campaign-finance system to protect its incumbency long after it has ceased having any ideas that would justify incumbency. The Republican Party is an obsolescent one. It may continue to rule, disguised as a majority by electoral legerdemain. But it will be a long time before the party is again able to rule from a place in Americans' hearts.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer for The Weekly Standard and 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. The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; The Southern Captivity of the GOP; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 55 - 72.