Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Republicanism and Its Discontents

Pat Buchanan has left the GOP, neo-con intellectuals can't get anyone to listen to them, and Congressional Republicans have never been weaker. Anyone else reminded of the Whig Party?

By Seth Gitell

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Several days ago, Patrick J. Buchanan took a podium in Falls Church, Virginia, and mischievously told supporters: "We're here to make a little bit of history." The history Buchanan was talking about was his decision to leave the Republican Party.

Buchanan's defection to the Reform Party is more than a passing blip on the political radar screen. Although it's now common for mainstream Republicans to paint Buchanan as a peripheral player, he has been part of the fabric of the Republican Party since the 1960s. He made his name as an architect of the "New Nixon" strategy and crafted some of the most memorable conservative rhetoric during Nixon's first term. And where others were quick to abandon Nixon as Watergate wore on, Buchanan remained loyal to the end. He re-emerged in the 1980s as a familiar face of the Reagan administration and appeared, in his most recent incarnation, as a CNN pundit. He was, in the words of Norman Podhoretz's recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, "an old comrade-in-arms during the Cold War."

Buchanan's decision makes obvious what many Republicans have been discussing among themselves for quite some time. The party as an organ is in serious trouble. This isn't about the ability of the state committees to organize. Nor is it about fundraising. This is about the Republican Party's loss of identity. In 1980, the GOP was the party of ideas, and it won the White House on the strength of those ideas. For example, it completely redefined the terms governing the debate on foreign policy and taxation. Today's GOP, by contrast, couldn't come up with a straight talking point about American involvement in Kosovo. And the party harbors as many rival factions as a Balkan mountain village.

To be sure, things look great on the surface. George W. Bush is steaming toward the presidential nomination and, in many observers' views, likely election. Feisty Elizabeth Dole fell into line two weeks ago and dropped out of the race in deference to Bush and his money. Gary Bauer, Malcolm "Steve" Forbes Jr., and Alan Keyes are mounting only tepid challenges to Bush's ascendancy. The campaign of the real rival, the charismatic US Senator John McCain, has yet to catch fire.

But it would be impossible to exaggerate how divided the Republican forces really are right now (see "The GOP for Dummies," left). The party is increasingly turning a deaf ear to one of its most intellectually important wings -- the neoconservatives who backed Ronald Reagan and put a premium on America's role in the world. The party's mishandling of the Buchanan situation actually gives legitimacy and energy to a radicalized Reform Party that's more likely to hurt Republicans than it is to hurt Democrats. And a more centrist governor-led style -- the style Bush represents, and the direction the GOP has been headed in for the past five years -- cannot satisfy the party's more conservative wing. Nor can it appeal to the racial minorities and immigrants the Democratic Party attracts.

Taken together, these developments signal a weakened or changed Republican Party, even should Bush go on to win the nomination and ultimately the presidency.

Two decades ago, Ronald Reagan forged a broad coalition that crushed the Democrats. His mix of Hollywood-style optimism and badass foreign policy attracted blue-collar white ethnics, conservative Democrats, Christian conservatives, and Manhattan intellectuals. Part of the glue holding them together was opposition to the "Evil Empire" -- the external menace that the Soviet Union and its meddlesome allies represented around the world. But you don't see that international concern in the GOP today.

Exhibit A? The congressional Republicans' defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which represents the kind of multilateral effort that Republicans have increasingly shied away from. Although some may have had legitimate reasons for opposing it, the wholesale rejection of the treaty was stunning. Many Republicans, too, opposed Clinton's Kosovo policy -- not only the tactics, but the merits of the effort itself. This Republican lurch inward doesn't just alienate some of the groups Reagan was able to bring to the party. It also marginalizes one of the party's own important factions -- neoconservative internationalists.

"There's something to a conservatism that does not embrace a big and large view of America's role in the world that tends to end up being petty-minded or simple-minded or simply about money," says William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a leading neocon internationalist. "That's not a conservatism that's capable of governing."

Kristol, the brains behind vice-president Dan Quayle during the Bush administration, warns that Republican isolationism is a recipe for disaster. He adds that his wing of the party represents the true heir to the Reagan tradition.

But the emerging consensus is articulated by Grover Norquist, an American Spectator columnist and president of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist isn't moved by nostalgia for the Reagan era. He scoffs at the notion that the GOP is doomed without a muscular view of America's role in the world. "Kristol and the internationalists represent seven people. That's seven people, that's not a movement," Norquist says. "Besides, every time Ronald Reagan built a missile, he had to build a goddamn subway to satisfy the congressional Democrats. Crushing the Communists internationally was only half the fight. Crushing the socialists domestically is the other half."

Norquist says he'd like to see the party organized around the idea of limited federal involvement. Republicans will triumph, he insists, by getting big government out of the lives of Americans. Home-schoolers, pro-gun people, the business lobby -- Norquist calls these elements "the leave-us-alone coalition."

Part of the problem here may be personalities. Kristol has drawn the ire of some elected Republicans for becoming a prominent GOP voice without benefit of elective office. Kristol has risen to prominence through a high-profile weekly television gig on ABC's This Week and his editorship of the Rupert Murdoch-funded Weekly Standard. But those who are jealous of Kristol and his friends do wrong to underestimate the power of his faction's ideas.

David Brooks, a writer at the Weekly Standard, for instance, has won growing mainstream recognition as a political theorist. Two key foreign-policy experts with neoconservative roots are battling to get George W. Bush's ear -- a former undersecretary of defense for President Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, and a former assistant secretary of defense, Richard Perle. Those who scoff at the size of the GOP's neoconservative wing are neglecting the intellectual vibrancy that this faction lent the party during the Reagan heyday, when the Democrats seemed moribund. Even today, whether it's welfare, education, or immigration policy, the terms of the debate will have been set, more likely than not, by Republican thinkers. As Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson points out in the New Republic, "the Democrats have managed to regain control of the White House only by shunning the 'l-word.' For all its currency, liberalism, one might say, has become the ideology that dares not speak its name."

As neoconservatives battle for influence within the Republican Party, another wing seems to be on the cusp of abandoning it altogether. This is the angry faction of social conservatives that Buchanan is preparing to lead into the Reform Party. Their defection represent a loss of key support for the GOP.

That isn't the only way Buchanan's rebellion hurts the Republicans, however. To those who consider Buchanan an extremist, the GOP has been all too accommodating to him. But the way in which party centrists handled Buchanan before he left will come back to haunt the party.

Last month, Bruce Ramer of the American Jewish Committee and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, along with others, traveled to Austin, Texas, to have lunch with Governor Bush. Ramer raised the issue of Buchanan, whose book A Republic, Not an Empire had just been published. In the book, Buchanan blames Britain and France for World War II: "Had Britain and France not given the war guarantees to Poland, there might have been no Dunkirk, no Belgium, Luxembourg, France, or even Italy." (This view has been shared by a minority of historians, but expressing it didn't win Buchanan any political points.) These concerns did not move Bush, who came out with a statement later the same week saying that Buchanan should remain in the party.

Bush won no friends with this namby-pamby approach. A condemnation might have turned Buchanan into Bush's Sister Souljah, winning him friends he never knew he had. Now he just looks like his father -- a wimp. And the Democrats have no plans to forget about this misstep, whether the target is Bush or some other Republican. Steve Grossman, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, is pressing the point in Massachusetts. "For Paul Cellucci to fail to hold Pat Buchanan responsible for his polarizing statements and actions is a craven thing and should be an object of some public scrutiny," says Grossman, who may one day challenge Cellucci.

But Cellucci, a key Bush ally and the leader of his campaign effort in Massachusetts, takes a Bush-like approach to the problems Buchanan presents. "I disagree with some of the statements he's made," Cellucci says. Not exactly a ringing endorsement -- but hardly a strong condemnation. Unlike John McCain, for instance, Cellucci never called for Buchanan to leave the party.

Grossman gives Cellucci credit for reaching out to gays and lesbians, blacks, Latinos, and others who have not traditionally been Republican allies. But should Grossman run against Cellucci for the governor's seat, he will certainly raise the Buchanan issue as a wedge to win back those moderate members of the state GOP coalition who voted Republican the last time. Grossman's strategy is not unique. During the past few weeks, Democratic operatives have gone out of their way to pin down Republican politicians on Buchanan -- especially moderate Republicans. A Buchanan-led Reform-Republican faction will only add to the trouble down the line.

There is one person out there who thinks a Reform-Republican alliance can work to the GOP's advantage. Former Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer Jude Wanniski, one of the architects of the Reagan era, is now advising Buchanan. On the surface, the two men have little in common other than a penchant for controversy. Buchanan advocates tariffs; Wanniski is a free trader. Buchanan is a nativist; Wanniski advocates free immigration. But Wanniski says he'd like to see the Reform Party and the Republican Party merge.

He has a history of winning people over to his ideas. An energetic and passionate proponent of supply-side economics, Wanniski persuaded Reagan to embrace the theory that George W.'s father famously called "voodoo economics." Later, Wanniski drew close to Jack Kemp, a darling of the right wing. Since those days Wanniski has embraced ideas that have increasingly put him on the fringes of the Republican Party. He has advised the Reverend Louis Farrakhan and drawn the ire of the Weekly Standard faction. He gave advice to the presidential effort of Dan Quayle until Quayle withdrew from the race last month. Wanniski may be a fringe player, but his ideas still carry influence, and he communicates with a cadre of journalists.

When it comes to his outlandish-sounding plan to merge the Republican and Reform Parties, there is a method to his madness. Taking as his first principle the "lack of leadership" in the Republican Party, Wanniski believes the merger could re-energize the GOP, bringing back disenchanted blue-collar workers, social conservatives, and African-Americans.

One faction of the GOP already boasts a kind of broad support: the governors. And what the governors represent for the GOP is a return to process: controlling the states and beating back big government. Governors, whether Democratic or Republican, are forced to deal with the real world. Accordingly, they generally move to the center and are often willing to experiment with innovative proposals, such as charter schools. George W. Bush, of course, represents the model of the state governor as GOP leader.

Congressional Republicans paved the way for their own eclipse by the governors when they orchestrated block grants to individual states opposed to traditional welfare after 1994. Now Republicans are leaving the unpopular Congress to go back to the states. One example is Representative Matt Salmon, a Republican from Arizona, who plans to go back to his home state and work in the private sector when his term is over in 2000. After that, he is considering a foray into state politics. Salmon, a Mormon, defines himself as a maverick Arizona conservative in the tradition of Barry Goldwater and John McCain. Elected with the Contract with America class, he found himself in hot water with Newt Gingrich when he took issue with the Speaker's leadership. He says Gingrich stopped being a visionary and started being scared of his own shadow.

"We haven't had a clear vision since the Contract with America. We've got to get back to the vision Reagan had," Salmon says. "Government keeps growing under Democrats and Republicans. I've come to the conclusion that if you want change, you've got to work from the ground up." (Many critics, on the other hand, now view the Contract as a marketing scheme aimed at energizing the Republican Party in the face of a powerful Democratic chief executive.)

Salmon is more conservative than Paul Cellucci or George Pataki. But he is like them in his view that change is best achieved on the state level and not the federal level. Salmon will probably find -- as other Republican state leaders have -- that state governance requires a degree of moderation not possible in Congress.

Smart conservatives, such as Norquist, believe that governorships and state control represent the future for the Republican Party. Not only do Republican governors have political power, but they represent the picture of executive authority that conservatives admire. In addition, the patronage and power opportunities within large, wealthy states such as New York and Texas give Republicans the ability to launch and fund presidential candidates -- such as Governor Bush. So far, moderate voters have been happy to let Republicans run the states, because Republican governors are forced to be more moderate, than, say, congressional Republicans.

But not all Republicans are happy with the new Democratic Leadership Council-style GOP. (There is even a group called the Republican Leadership Council, formed in 1997, aimed at bringing the Republican Party to the center.) Conservative activists became irate, for example, when Bush took a shot at Judge Robert Bork earlier this month. "Too often, on social issues, the party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah," Bush told the Manhattan Institute. Bork, of course, penned the best-selling 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline -- and social conservatives bristled at what they saw as a direct slap at somebody they view as martyr for the conservative cause.

But Bork, like many other Washington conservatives, is still betting that even a Bush presidency would be better than a Democratic one. The same cannot be said of more-strident social conservatives. Paul Weyrich, who last year called for conservatives to "tune out" of politics, is now attacking Bush and siding with Steve Forbes, as Forbes announced in a recent press release. Weyrich, another prominent Reagan-era conservative who has since been pushed to the margins, was so angry at Bush's attack on Bork that he compared the governor to -- gasp -- liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller.

So what does all this mean today? It means that efforts by the GOP to regain the White House aren't nearly as organized as they might seem. Calls to the campaign offices of McCain, Forbes, and Elizabeth Dole (who was still in the race as this story was being reported) revealed that all three candidates claim to be the true heirs to Reagan and the only ones able to unify the party. Forbes spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss says that many "pro-life" conservatives support the magazine publisher because he would appoint judges favorable to their tastes. The McCain people, meanwhile, face sniping from the right because of their candidate's support for campaign-finance reform, which he sees as the only way to get special interests out of government. "McCain believes, like most grassroots conservatives, that we ought to put working families ahead of special interests," says Howard Opinsky, a spokesman for the candidate. But Grover Norquist, who lambastes McCain for taking up this cause, led a delegation to New Hampshire to protest it as a "war on the First Amendment."

All this jockeying is not just pre-season election posturing. It makes a difference on the campaign trail. Positions matter in places like New Hampshire and Iowa, where you need free laborers to hold signs and hand out campaign literature. Conservative operatives say Bauer and Forbes are the ones drawing the foot soldiers.

If the rise of a New Hampshire organization called the Republican Fund points to a national trend, divisions between the hard right and the governors' style could spell real trouble for the GOP. According to the Republican Fund's executive director, Melissa Ogle, the new GOP group is raising money "to elect Republicans to the New Hampshire House of Representatives who believe in a majority of the planks of the Republican Party platform." The problem, as they see it, is growing moderation within the state GOP. The more legislators try to court mainstream support by moving to the left on issues such as "partial birth" abortion and revenue-raising mechanisms such as statewide property taxes, the angrier New Hampshire conservatives get. On the surface, there is no daylight between the official state Republican apparatus and the Republican Fund. Dig just a little deeper, though, and you'll hear just how out of touch and enfeebled conservative activists believe the official party organization to be.

Nobody's yet singling out George W. Bush by name, but his brand of centrist moderation and organizational appeal is exactly what is driving the state activists nuts. If developments in New Hampshire play out nationally, the GOP could get caught in a bind, putting its long-term prospects in serious jeopardy. The more Bush and his allies -- such as Cellucci -- move rightward to keep the conservatives happy, the more they risk the broad electoral coalitions that got them elected in the first place. Careful observers of Cellucci, for example, note that he has been much more welcoming of the social conservatives in recent months. Steve Grossman believes that Bush's failure to condemn Buchanan will alienate racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. The governors are treading a very thin line, and it may not be good for the party in the long run.

So can this process-oriented group of Republican governors provide the glue to hold the party together into the future? Probably not. Republicans, when they have done well, have been fueled by an ideological sense of purpose -- the way they were at their birth, when they supplanted the Whigs in the 1850s. Don't recall the Whigs? They were the party that rose up in opposition to Andrew Jackson in the first half of the 19th century. They gave us such memorable presidents as William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. (There's a reason you could never recall the presidents of this era in high school.) They boasted some talented legislative leaders of their day -- Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, to name a couple -- and promptly imploded in internal conflict. Many Whigs ended up joining the anti-slavery Republican Party. Another branch formed the basis of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party, which propagated nativist legislation in the wake of riots on the streets of New York and Boston. Remind you of anybody?

But Republicans have floundered when the only thing they have to unite them is hatred of the Democrats. That was pretty much the case from the time of Roosevelt's New Deal until Nixon's conservative insurgency in 1968. That date is significant because Nixon found himself aided by two creative speechwriters who orchestrated his attack on the left -- Patrick J. Buchanan and William Safire. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find much that Buchanan and Safire, now a columnist at the New York Times, agree upon. (Much of their disagreement centers on foreign affairs.) With Buchanan leaving the party, events could fall into place that derail the GOP before Bush even stands for election in 2000. Another international crisis or downturn in the economy would damage the Democratic candidate as well as the Republican, of course, but it could fracture the Republican Party. Polls suggest that Bush would win a general election, but in a worst-case scenario, the Republicans -- with all their infighting -- could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. At best, Bush, if he wins, could end up feeling a lot like Millard Fillmore, the last Whig president.

Bush whacking

The GOP's favorite frat boy, Texas governor George W. Bush, seems to be racing toward the Republican Party's nomination. Money is pouring in. Republican activists are stoked. But should they be? Odds are that the younger Bush is a much weaker candidate than he appears to be. Here's why.

Remember the 1992 New Hampshire primary? That's when Pat Buchanan began chewing up George Bush and his sky-high popularity. Then, because Ross Perot voters tended to lean more toward the conservative, his Reform Party candidacy -- carrying almost 20 percent of the electorate -- cost the elder Bush many votes that ultimately helped Bill Clinton become president. Now, experts foresee Buchanan's Reform Party candidacy similarly deflating the younger Bush's effort.

But that's not all. Many conservatives still haven't warmed to him. As much as Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley and others at the Journal's editorial page like taking shots at President Clinton, they seem to relish criticizing George W. Bush almost as much. Everything from Bush's compassionate conservativism to his family connections have been grist for the Journal's mill.

Also, there are those who contend that Bush doesn't have enough of a handle on the issues he's supposed to be running on. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman believes that Bush is in for trouble. "A guy who doesn't know the difference between Grecians and Greeks ought not to be president," says Mellman. Even more, Bush's record on social issues and the environment may not look so strong when placed under the spotlight of a presidential campaign.

Finally, it's important to remember how much Bush is liked by conservatives only because they believe he will appoint more conservative Supreme Court justices and lower-level judges than any Democrat would. The problem with this kind of support is that as soon as anything goes wrong -- whether it's an international crisis, an economic malaise, or a controversial court decision -- things could start to careen out of control for Bush.

Conservatives are gambling that a Bush presidency would give them at least three Supreme Court justices and arrest the progressive push of the Clinton era. If victorious, they could very well get to choose the three -- or maybe four -- justices: Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens, and possibly even Ruth Bader Ginsburg are all expected to retire within the next five years. Just as President Bush, whom conservatives always viewed with derision, nominated the ultra-conservative Clarence Thomas to the court, they believe Bush the Younger will do exactly the same thing.

So although they're desperate for a winning candidate, many conservative activists are lowering their expectations. How much this bargain will do for those on the right, however, is unclear. Keep in mind that the Republicans once had a hands-off governor who, as president, left activism to the individual states. His name was Calvin Coolidge, and when he died Dorothy Parker quipped, "How can they tell?"

-- SG

The GOP for dummies

Lurking just beneath the surface of the Republican Party is a surging sea of conflicting factions. All have good reasons to revile the others -- perhaps even more than they loathe the Democrats. And some Republicans represent more than one faction. Here's a primer:

Religious conservatives: These are the guys you love to hate. The people who keep pictures of fetuses in their wallets and want Darwin out of the science books. Nail those Ten Commandments to the schoolhouse door. Think the Reverend Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. Support is split between George W. Bush, Gary Bauer, and Steve Forbes.

Libertarians, a/k/a Leave-Me-Alone Republicans: They want little government, if any at all. They support low taxes and are leaning toward Forbes for president.

Business Republicans: Remember those cartoons of fat-cat businessmen smoking cigars? These guys want to make money. They'll sell goods to China and want to do business with Libya and Iran.

Congressional Republicans: Once the brightest stars among the Republicans, they're now led by the likes of exterminator turned House majority whip Tom DeLay and wrestling coach turned House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Very weak.

Weekly Standard Republicans: Heirs to the neoconservative intellectual firepower that fueled much of the Reagan revolution. Led by William Kristol, editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard, this faction argues for active American engagement around the world. Instead of selling grain to Serbia, Iran, Iraq, and Libya, these guys want to get rid of dictators and replace them with democracies. Their forebears were utopian leftists turned rightward. Congratulated Clinton after Milosevic capitulated.

The governors: This faction is rising, with Bush as its head. Massachusetts's Paul Cellucci is a member, as are Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and George Pataki of New York. They're forced to be pragmatic because they govern in the real world. In some ways, the members of this group are heirs to the old Rockefeller Republicans, but they're more conservative.

Neo-Know Nothings: These people are the radicalized and angry followers of Pat Buchanan, and they're on the brink of forsaking the GOP for the Reform Party. But some think the Reform Party and the Republicans should merge.

-- SG

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

News & Opinion: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch