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Political analysts are still scratching their heads over the election results with no dominant opinion having yet emerged. Democrats, despite their insistence that the election would not be a referendum on Bill Clinton, now claim an impeachment backlash. Most Republicans grudgingly attribute the loss to lack of a coherent agenda. Others blame the party for being too far either to the left or right and still others to inept marketing of the Republican message.
Polling data provides some clues to the mystery but contributes to the confusion as well. For example, one columnist after the election stated that the results didn’t square with recent polling data as to the major issues. According to him, Americans agree with Republicans on “virtually every issue,” including eliminating affirmative action, restoring school prayer, reducing all governmental agencies, imposing term limits and school choice. He concluded that the only reasonable explanation for the Republicans’ sub-par showing was their failure to market their ideas.
But exit polls seem to conflict with this analysis, revealing that the voters believe by a comfortable double-digit margin that Democrats are doing a better job than Republicans in education, social security and the environment. This, despite the fact that many more of the voters identified themselves as conservative: 31 percent, than liberal: 19 percent.
What are we to make of these paradoxical polls and divergent opinions? How, for instance, can voters overwhelmingly favor school vouchers and believe that the NEA-purchased-Democrats are doing a better job with education?
It seems that there is some truth to many of the tendered explanations. When asked what they think about the issues, apart from the question of which party is doing what, voters are decidedly more conservative than liberal. But these same people also believe that Democrats are doing a better job on these issues even though their public policies are not aligned with the conservative approach favored by voters. Marketing and propaganda, then, must explain some of the anomalies.
The Republicans’ failure to formulate an intelligible agenda is also a major factor. With an unequivocal message there would be no such voter confusion. Master deceiver and obfuscator, Clinton, would be problematic enough for a focused party, but he wreaks havoc on a disjointed one, ripe for and vulnerable to his demagoguery.
But shortcomings in marketing and agenda are symptoms rather than the causes of the Republicans’ implosion. The real cause is even more alarming. Simply stated, the Republican Party is exceedingly and deeply fractured and monumentally confused. During the Reagan ’80s the party knew exactly what it stood for, and behind the leadership of Ronald Reagan, drew a defining line in the sand over those issues.
Today, the Republican Party has no consensus on a number of policy matters. What could be more illustrative of this fact than exit polls showing that voters believed that Republicans were only marginally better tax cutters than Democrats? And this isn’t just a matter of perception. The Republican Congress passed a tax cut only to be squelched by the Republican-dominated Senate. But taxation isn’t the only issue on which the GOP has lost its rudder. It is severely divided on social issues and international trade as well. What about that old Republican stalwart issue, law and order? Foiled again. Some 40-odd House “moderates” don’t even seem to believe in the rule of law.
Granted, the party has been at the crossroads before. After Clinton won in 1992 the party was scrambling to determine how George Bush could have plummeted from 90 percent approval ratings to defeat. Election upsets invariably and properly generate party introspection.
So what lessons should the party learn?
- Republicans generally do better at the polls when they campaign and govern like Republicans. It’s important that they remember that this isn’t just about marketing or campaigning; its primarily about governance.
- The big tent that Republicans were able to erect around Ronald Reagan was expansive and unthreatening enough to include pro-choice Republicans and small-government Democrats. It can happen again.
- The mainstream of the party must resist the efforts of establishment Republicans to adulterate further the conservative message. The party will never rally, much less expand its base by abandoning or diluting its time-honored principles.
- The party must remain a pro-life party and reach out, seeking to accommodate Christian conservatives without excommunicating pro-choice voters.
- Among other things, Republicans must a) champion free market principles by standing for reductions in taxes, spending and bloated bureaucracies; b) advocate the restoration of a strong national defense, including SDI; c) promote law and order and d) unapologetically embrace traditional family values.
- Unless the party manages to rebuild its coalition around the winning principles of Ronald Reagan (which principles remain every bit as popular today as they were in the ’80s), it will continue to splinter and flounder and ultimately, even disintegrate. Principled conservatives simply will not tolerate their own homelessness indefinitely.