With the exception of the Contract with America, Republicans have
been scratching their heads in confusion and playing defense for most of
Clinton’s tenure in office. Their bewilderment has turned into
self-flagellation following his acquittal. How could they have spiraled
downward so far in such a short period of time?
In just six short years Clinton has managed systematically to
dismantle the dominant coalition it took the Republicans more than a
generation to build. Political coalitions on a national scale are always
fragile because they consist of groups loosely joined by certain common
purposes in the nature of a collection of concentric circles — with the
issues differentiating them often exceeding those uniting them.
Ever changing circumstances, such as voters’ perceptions and the
presence or absence of economic prosperity, the Cold War and the
deficit, dictate the parameters of these fragile coalitions. Not every
Reagan voter, for example, would have favored an across-the-board tax
cut if the economy had performed better under the Carter years.
Clinton, being the consummate politician, masterfully capitalized on
these factors in attacking the Reagan-Bush coalition. He used the
circumstances of a recession during the campaign to transform the
people’s perception of the economy as the worst in 50 years. He employed
the tactic of class warfare to further taint that perception by
appealing to the baser instincts of jealousy and greed. It was no longer
“how am I doing?” but “why is the other guy doing better than I am?”
Clinton has also undermined the Republican coalition by co-opting
conservative issues, such as welfare reform, thereby diluting the
perceived distinction between the parties. He is trying to do the same
thing with national defense. After downsizing the military to a
perilously reduced level of readiness, he shamelessly painted himself as
General Patton in his State of the Union speech.
Some conservatives are indicting society’s moral decline for
Clinton’s acquittal and Republican woes in general. They are hardly
imagining a moral decline in our culture. But they should conceptually
distinguish between the reasons for the acquittal and the causes of
their party’s problems, even if there is a degree of overlap.
Republicans would be well advised not to make cultural decline a
scapegoat for their current state of disarray, because it will result in
their failure to take remedial action.
Moreover, Republicans must not opt out of the political process with
the naïve assumption that they can only effect cultural change outside
the system. Regardless of how inexorable society’s moral downslide seems
to be, we must never forget that their withdrawal will only make
conditions worse because unrestrained government will always possess the
capacity for unlimited mischief and evil. The separation of powers and
checks and balances built into our constitutional system help to prevent
government abuses but will fail if unsupported by a vigilant and
participating body politic.
Republicans must not allow themselves the luxury of believing that
the marginal constituencies that constituted the silent majority have
been swallowed up by an irreversibly debased culture. It is more likely
that their coalition has only been temporarily severed by their
inability to react to Clinton’s divisive demagoguery and deft
manipulation of circumstances. The silent majority has not abandoned
Republicans; Republicans have let down the silent majority.
The Republican Party still has the best chance of producing positive
change within our political system. To do so, however, it must become
proactive, not reactive; it must lead, not follow; and it must rebuild
its majority coalitions behind solid, enduring principles, not
superficial rhetoric such as “compassionate conservatism.” These
principles must guide the reformation and restructuring of its platform
to fit our rapidly changing global circumstances.
For example, it must resurrect national defense as a rallying issue
but modify its application to accommodate the replacement of the Cold
War’s bipolar balance of power with the destabilized world of numerous
rogue nations approaching nuclear capability. That means it must make
SDI an uncompromising priority.
As to fiscal policy, the party must communicate that our current
prosperity is largely traceable to Reagan tax cuts. Further tax cuts
must be insulated from class warfare rhetoric by effectively selling the
concept that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Moderate Republicans insist that Republicans’ problems are due to
their image as a hard-edged band of intolerant moralists. Even if this
is partially true, the answer is not to abandon principles but to
articulate them in a way that communicates with voters.
In the months ahead the struggle for the heart and soul of the
Republican Party will intensify. If the party discards its core beliefs
in favor of a strategy of unprincipled appeasement urged by moderates,
it will lose more than its peripheral allies; it will sacrifice its base
as well — as we saw in the ’98 elections. It is no accident that
liberal Democrats are always advising Republicans to become more
moderate. They know that it is a formula for disaster. Only if the
party’s leadership reclaims its roots will it provide the silent
majority sufficient reason to return to it.