A Loss for Bush, Not GOP

Fred Barnes

June 16, 2014

Heading in the right direction shouldn’t be difficult. That direction is so clear as to be unmistakable. It’s Reagan-Kemp conservatism. If there’s another set of Republican ideas that’s a credible alternative, I haven’t heard it.

Ever since the Republican Convention in Houston last August, there’ve been alarms about a wild, new threat to politics as we know it in the United States. I’m referring to the Christian Right. The threat is supposedly twofold. First, President Bush turned the convention over to the Christian conservatives out of fear that they might not support him against Bill Clinton. (Even this craven act didn’t work, as Clinton was able to cut into the born-again vote.) Second, they’re now on the verge of capturing the entire Republican party and turning it into a religious party, narrowly based, bigoted, and sure to lose national election after national election.

The threat from the Christian Right is, I think, a figment of the imagination of the media and interest groups like the Republican Media Coalition ( Former Senator Warren Rudman, Ex-Congressman Tom Campbell, publicist Roger Stone). To folks who charge the Pat Robertson brigades are taking over, I always ask, what’s your evidence? The convention, they answer. Look what happened there. Well, what happened? The speeches, they say. Which ones? Well, Patrick Buchanan, for starters. My response is Buchanan is a Catholic who entered politics in the 1960s. Two decades before the Christian Right came into existence. He’s Old Right, not Christian Right. O.K., they say, but how about Robertson and the others? Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, addressed the convention, I concede, but not in prime time. Hardly anyone saw or heard him. Any more evidence? They’re silent. The others? There aren’t any, unless you include Phyllis Schlafly, another old Rightie.

The GOP has a problem or two, and they’re not life-or-death problems. The Christian Right isn’t one of them. True, it’s taken over party offices in a couple of states, but so what? The Robertson forces took over a few state organizations in 1988 as well, and two things happened. First, they soon lost control. Second, many Christian rightists became regular Republicans, indistinguishable from everyone except the country-club set in the GOP. What the arrival of the Christian Right did not mean was a change in the character and ideology of the Republican Party. The party hasn’t changed since 1980, when Ronal Reagan won the presidential nomination and conservatives drafted the Republican platform. The 1992 platform was practically the same as the 1980 platform.

So what are the problems? The biggest one has gone already: Bush. No, I don’t think Bush was a “failed” President. He courageously challenged Saddam Hussein in Desert Strom and deftly handled the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism. But he didn’t do what he was elected to do in domestic affairs, namely continue the policies of Reagan. The party didn’t change, but Bush did. Instead of cutting taxes or holding the line, he raised taxes in the 1990 budget deal, which was an ideological, economic, and political blunder. Instead of trimming spending or at least exerting some restraint, he let federal spending soar. And instead of de-regulating, he re-regulated. No wonder the economy soured.

Bush’s loss, bad as it was with an incumbent GOP President drawing a puny 38 percent of the vote, is not the same as a Republican defeat. Far from it. Bush lost largely for reasons peculiar to him. While his decision to veer from Reaganomics hurt the economy, that alone wasn’t enough to cause his defeat. Bush also managed to convey the message he didn’t have a credible plan for producing prosperity in the second term. He repudiated the budget deal in unconvincing fashion— I think he secretly still likes the deal— then didn’t hone an economic theme. Moreover, Bush was a fish out of water, a Cold War President in the post-Cold War world. In 1992, only eight percent of the electorate thought foreign policy and national security were paramount issues. Bush often seemed to be running for commander-in-chief, but that’s not what voters were looking for. Meanwhile, Clinton moved to the political center, exactly what any Democrat must do to win the presidency. Bush tried to tar him as a conventional liberal, but that didn’t stick.

Were the Republican party in deep distress, Bush would have dragged hundreds of GOP candidates to defeat with him. That didn’t happen, except in California, where Bush lost by 15 points and the economy was in a truly terrible shape. Republicans held Democrats to a wash in the Senate and won ten House seats. With a better candidate at the top of the ticket and a slightly more robust economy, Republicans would have won ten more House seats, maybe 20 more. In any case, the problem was chiefly Bush, not all Republicans. The same was true at the state and local level. Republicans gained hundreds of state legislative seats and local offices, despite Bush.

There is one final thing that shows—to me, anyway—that it was a case of: Republicans are O.K., Bush isn’t. Think of almost any other major Republican figure as the presidential nominee in 1992 in place of Bush. Jack Kemp. Bob Dole. Dick Cheney. Any of them would have beaten Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, I believe. Pat Buchanan wouldn’t have. Nor would Pat Robertson or Pete Wilson. But none of these last three had a chance for the nomination. Had Bush pulled out in, say, May, my guess is Kemp, Dole, or Cheney would have gotten the nomination. And won easily.

Post-Bush, the problems loom smaller. I think there are only two. The first is recognizing the ideological direction that’s best for the party. The other is averting unnecessary internecine battles. Heading in the right direction shouldn’t be difficult. That direction is so clear as to be unmistakable. It’s Reagan-Kemp conservatism. If there’s another set of Republican ideas that’s a credible alternative, I haven’t heard it. Pressed to come up with an economic and domestic program, Bush fell back on the Reagan-Kemp approach. He called for five things (when he got around to mentioning them): lower taxes, reduced spending, deregulation, legal reform, school choice. All were popular. All were stands the party can rely on in future elections.

This doesn’t mean Republicans should stop thinking. The post-Cold War world is different. People have new interests, concerns, priorities. With a clever politician like Clinton in the White House—a man with one foot in the center, one on the left—Republicans must be more than knee-jerk conservatives. They’ve got to develop appealing positions on issues that conservatives tend to slight: health care, the environment, education, child development, transportation. Better late than never. The hardest of these for conservatives, I think, is the environment. It’s so easy for liberals to demagogue this issue: you’re for killing whales, paving America, poisoning the air. The policy of trading pollution rights is a good one, but hard to sell as an overarching policy. Free market environmentalism won’t catch on until environmental extremism becomes national policy and ruins the economy. Maybe that will happen with a Clinton-Al Gore administration.

The conventional wisdom is a Republican bloodbath over social issues is inevitable. In fact, some minority elements of the GOP—moderates mostly, joined by a few pro-choice fanatics—need such a fight because it’s their only chance for getting the upper hand in the party. By demonizing the conservative wing as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Religious Right, they might scare Republicans into their own camp and drive many conservatives—not just Christian forces—out of the party. Should they succeed, they’ll be left with a party that’s smaller, less representative, more elitist, bereft of intellectual heft, and unlikely to win anything.

But a battle over social issues isn’t inevitable, or even likely. I think Republicans can both gain back lost ground by stressing social issues and avoid a bloodbath. How so? In Clinton’s first two years, the economy will probably grow handsomely. Voters will have other things to worry about, and the liberal social policies of the Clinton administration will head the list. If the Freedom of Choice Act passes and makes abortion on demand the law of the land, Republicans can champion popular amendments: a waiting period, informed consent, etc. If Clinton lifts the ban on gays in the military, Republicans can claim, rightly, that he is jeopardizing national security in order to satisfy a liberal pressure group. They don’t have to indulge in gay-bashing to woo Reagan Democrats again. These folks didn’t ditch the GOP in 1988 because they want homosexuals in the 101st Airborne. They will be attracted by a reasoned argument about the nation’s defense, not anti-gay bigotry.

Finally, there’s the biggest neglected issue of 1992: quotas. Bush gave up the right to use this issue by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1991. He was uncomfortable with condemning quotas anyway. It chilled his relationship with friends in the civil rights lobby. Other Republicans aren’t so finicky (Kemp is). Should Clinton impose racial and gender quotas throughout his administration and in his policies, the GOP should respond forcefully. Sure, Clinton and liberal groups will grouse that Republicans are sowing racial discord at a time when racial healing is needed. But they’ll be wrong. It’s quotas that cause racial animosity, not opposition to them. If Republicans don’t understand this, then they’ve got a more serious problem than I thought.

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