Free To Be The GOP
Despite the right-wing butt-kissing, the Bush-Cheney ticket marks the party's return to its roots: Big money and big business
By Seth Gitell
AUGUST 7, 2000: PHILADELPHIA -- Forget about the Latino girl who wowed the Republican delegates with the National Anthem. Forget about the soppy sloganeering of "Leave no child behind." Forget about the plucky African-American Virginia state legislator who holds the seat once occupied by Thomas Jefferson. Forget about Colin Powell's riveting speech.
The most important thing about the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last week is that the GOP nominated two Big Oil candidates who oppose campaign-finance reform. From the vantage point of the Wyndham Park Hotel, Bush's temporary headquarters, the team behind the "different kind of conservative" is on display. There's Richard Cheney, who so loyally served the elder Bush as secretary of defense. There's Andrew Card, a native of Holbrook, Massachusetts, who served President Bush as secretary of transportation. And there are the Ashleys, Megans, and Tiffanys buzzing about the hotel lobby and elevators, who serve as the foot soldiers of the campaign.
They are the "new" face of the Republican Party -- a party now bereft of Reaganite ideological girdings. Today, the GOP is the repository for the hopes and dreams of Big Business. It's no surprise that parties sponsored by US Tobacco and Phillip Morris were among the best-attended events at the convention. And Robert Novak reported in his Chicago Sun-Times column that fundraisers "hijacked" seats to the convention at the expense of party activists. That situation could have been remedied by holding the convention at the conveniently located (and more spacious) Philadelphia Convention Center, downtown, but the party chose the distant First Union Center because of a more lucrative sponsorship deal.
The Republicans have looked back to find their future. They've reverted to what they always become during periods devoid of ideological combat -- a party of business. In 1896, they gathered to nominate William McKinley, the acolyte of Ohio businessman Mark Hanna. In 1920, they selected Warren Harding, the favorite of the copper and oil industries. And in 2000, the GOP is once again going with the safe choice: a candidate they know, who's guided by his father's team of advisers. It's interesting to note that in 1896, Hanna led McKinley to victory with a "front porch" strategy and a whistle-stop tour. In 2000, Bush adviser Karl Rove has plotted an Austin strategy followed by a whistle-stop train ride that's scheduled to start after the convention.
As the elder Bush's legacy moves to the center, among those now pushed to the margins are the neoconservatives, or those who used to be called neoconservatives -- the group of ideological conservatives who gave intellectual fuel to the Reagan administration. Many of these people started out on the left and drifted rightward over time. They played a major role in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. As Clifford May, the Republican National Committee's director of communications, put it this weekend: "Liberalism left us." It's true to say that some of these people -- such as May himself -- are lining up behind Bush. But some of them are profoundly disenchanted.
"It's very clear there's political correctness on the right too," says a former Bush administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Speaking in the lobby of a downtown Philadelphia hotel, he analyzes the Bush-Cheney ticket in terms that sound surprisingly like those heard at Arianna Huffington's Shadow Convention and even last month's Green Party convention in Denver. "We have the J.R. Ewing dream ticket. This is the ticket J.R. would put together if he could," he says, referring to the main character in the 1980s television program Dallas. "One thing binds the party together right now -- soft money. Bush is the crown prince who epitomizes corporatism."
But what about Bush's vaunted embrace of compassionate conservatism? "The corporatism is masked by compassionate conservatism," he says, pointing to Cheney's remarks on Meet the Press over the weekend as evidence of the corporate influence beginning to dominate the Bush campaign. (Cheney told Tim Russert that he favored "multilateral sanctions" on Iraq but opposed unilateral sanctions on Iran and Libya. At the same time, he favored keeping unilateral sanctions on Cuba.) To the former Bush official, Cheney's unusual position is attributable to one thing -- oil. "It's all about Halliburton. Iran and Libya have oil. Cuba does not. Now Iran has missiles pointed at US interests, and there ain't no missiles in Cuba."
Other conservatives echo this critique. "This is definitely not the return of Reagan. Compassionate conservatism is a thousand points of light plus," says another Washington-based conservative insider, referring to the elder Bush's social philosophy. "If you had any doubts about what this was going to be, the pick of Cheney removed any doubts. Cheney unmasked this thing as the restoration -- Bush II. There was a hope that Bush was going to rebuild the Republican Party. All this has to do with is GOP establishmentarianism."
The Massachusetts delegation's brunch is a far cry from the scene at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Sunday, at an event for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The star speaker is Senator John McCain. After someone fires up a John Philip Sousa march, he takes the podium to a standing ovation and delivers a fiery speech on Mideast policy. In the audience is William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, whose father, Irving Kristol, is one of the most influential thinkers in the neo-conservative movement, and who is the heir to its leadership today. William Kristol, who served as an aide to Vice-President Dan Quayle, was an avowed McCain fan during the primaries, but he now has cautious praise for the Bush team. In a telephone interview later in the week, he takes issue with the idea that Bush is a carbon copy of his father: "He's somewhat between his father and Reagan. It's neither Reagan nor Bush. He is truly a new kind of Republican." His words can be taken at face value, but they can also be read as the comments of someone still smarting from the attacks he took in conservative circles for his advocacy of McCain during the Republican primary season. There's also a legal term that might be used to explain the situation, and Kristol's presence at the McCain event: res ipsa loquitur, "the thing speaks for itself."
Another important younger thinker in the tradition of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, David Frum, also shows up at the McCain event, where he says that Bush's nomination suggests a major reordering of the conservative universe: "One of the things going on at this convention is that many important questions are being asked. What does conservatism mean in a world where the Reaganite international agenda has succeeded beyond everybody's hopes? The message of free markets has been accepted more than anyone hoped. But the message of shrinking government has been soundly rejected. So what do we do instead?"
Answer: help big business. Frum doesn't say this, but that's clearly the mood of the convention. Interestingly, Frum is insistent that he not be described as a neo-conservative. "A neo-conservative is a conservative with some sentimental attachment to the Democratic Party," he says. "That is the party that betrayed South Vietnam, ignited inflation, and practiced appeasement of the Soviet Union. I'm not interested in it."
Over the next few days, I put my questions about the Bush-Cheney ticket to a variety of Republican elected officials. On one night, many have gathered at a hot nightspot, the Striped Bass, to eat shrimp and drink frigid cocktails at a bash sponsored by financial-technology tycoon Michael Bloomberg. "I don't think people think of Cheney as being a rich guy," says Representative Peter King of New York, a Long Island Republican who supported McCain. "He won the Cold War. He's respected." Former New York senator Alfonse D'Amato also talks Cheney up: "He will be a marvelous vice-president. Bush got rid of the glitz and went with substance."
At another location, Stephen Goldsmith -- the former mayor of Indianapolis, a Bush domestic-policy adviser, and an architect of compassionate conservatism -- rejects the characterization of Bush as a Big Oil candidate. "He is certainly not Big Oil," he promises. "We ought to be judged by our policies. Bush's policies deal with how to help people who have been left behind. That's the theme of the convention."
But Cheney's position on sanctions is the kind of issue that signals his world view. What does Cheney value more -- American defense issues and human rights, or money? Iran, after all, is still on America's terrorism list. It's still working on the Shahab ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction. Ten Iranian Jews are still in prison on spying charges based on coerced confessions. Libya is on trial in the Hague for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 back in the 1980s. For Cheney, these issues are unimportant. Yet of all the politicians in the world, he was the one Bush picked to be his vice-president -- his first major decision. In that context, the objections to Cheney have weight.
The problem for the disgruntled Republicans is that they have nowhere to go. They know the Democrats won't be better on these issues and may be worse on others. For former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who is now supporting Bush, this means lots of fighting ahead. "I'll do everything I can to make sure our foreign policy is based on American values rather than just on trade," said Bauer, speaking in front of a party for McCain Monday night. "Big money is a corrupting force in the party. I don't know how it became a conservative principal that that was okay."
But defending soft money has, in fact, almost become a point of faith in some circles of the Republican Party. At a Christian Coalition of America rally Tuesday, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky vowed before a massive crowd to do everything in his power to protect soft money. "When you hear the words 'campaign-finance reform,' some liberal is trying to shut you up," he said to applause.
The most disconcerting things about the Republican convention as of Tuesday night were the appropriation of patriotism for political purposes and the invocation of President Bush's role in Iraq as a selling point for a new Bush administration. In the years since 1991, Bush's failure to deal adequately with Saddam Hussein has become painfully evident. If Bush had acted forcefully -- arming the rebels he had promised to support -- Saddam Hussein would not be in power today. This sticks in the craw of those Republicans uneasy about the new Bush team. If Bush is elected, he'll probably have to confront his father's mistake. Though you'd never guess this sort of problem was looming on the horizon from the convention festivities on Tuesday.
The Republicans also ignored another major issue during Tuesday night's events -- the fact that neither Cheney nor Bush, both of whom were of age during the Vietnam War, served in that conflict. In other words, as people would have said during the 1960s, they were chicken hawks. Where was the hokey movie showing George W. Bush flying around the skies of Texas during that period? Says the former Bush administration official: "I think about the guy in South Boston who's 52 now and didn't have the advantages to get out of it and went to Vietnam and saw hell." It looks even worse after the Republicans made so much of Clinton's draft-dodging back in 1992.
This election year was a rare opportunity for Republicans -- and still might be. They could have nominated a candidate whose character so contrasted with Clinton's that they might have won a generation of new voters. Instead, they're serving up the same old country-club stock that's been at the center of the GOP for more than a century. Their candidate and the mechanics of their convention represent Clintonism without Clinton. This could pose a problem for the Republicans if Gore picks either a Vietnam hero, such as John Kerry or Bob Kerrey, or a moral paragon, such as Joseph Lieberman, as his running mate. If Bush wins and governs in the way he has so far run his campaign -- in such a way as to exorcise the neocons and their heirs from the party -- the ramifications for American politics could be great. No party, not even the Republicans, can be based on the dollar alone.
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