Republicanism and its discontents
Pat Buchanan has left the GOP, neocon intellectuals can't get anyone
to listen to them, and congressional Republicans have never been weaker.
by Seth Gitell
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
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
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.
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
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?"
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.