Posted on September 01, 1997 in Washington Watch

In the midst of a summer recess, Washington is fairly quiet. But politics continues in the rest of the country with politicians travelling domestically and internationally and launching initiatives that they hope will set the tone and agenda for the fall and winter policy debates.

A number of these summer developments have been disturbing since they point to the continuing rightward drift of the Republican Party.

First is the failing effort by President Clinton to have a moderate Republican Governor, William Weld of Massachusetts, confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Weld’s nomination seems doomed since it is opposed by far-right Senator Jesse Helms who, as the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, has the power to block the nomination. The process for all Presidential nominees is as follows: the President names his choice; the relevant Senate committee holds hearings on the nomination; once the committee finalizes its examination they send a recommendation to the entire Senate which then votes to confirm or reject the nomination.

Helms, a bitter opponent of Weld’s moderate views has pledged that he will not even hold hearings on Weld’s nomination.

A few weeks ago Weld received support from another Republican Senator, Richard Lugar, a moderate and a true internationalist in the old Republican tradition. Lugar, who also chairs the Agriculture Committee in the Senate, has threatened retaliation against Helms (whose state has many important agricultural interests) if Helms continues to block Weld’s nomination. To the dismay of both Weld and Lugar and the White House, no other Senator has come forth to support Weld or to oppose Helms. And as late as last week Helms made clear his continuing intention to block Weld’s nomination at any cost.

Further evidence of the rightward pull of the Republican Party came at last week’s Mid-West Republican Convention. Republicans from Mid-Western states gathered at the event to debate issues, plan for the 1998 Congressional and statewide elections and to hear from those Republicans who are already running for the presidential nomination in 2000.

The cast of characters who appeared at the event included most of the old faces familiar to Republicans from the last three presidential races. There was Jack Kemp, who ran for president in 1988 and won the vice-presidential nomination in 1996, and Dan Quayle, the former vice president and vice-presidential candidate in 1988 and 1992. One half of the candidates from 1996 were on hand including Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, and Alan Keyes, all running for president in 2000. There were two new faces among the stars at the event as well, Senator Fred Thompson, Chairman of the Senate Campaign Finance Hearings and Texas Governor George W. Bush, Jr., son of the former President.

Having suffered two losses in presidential races in 1992 and 1996, Republicans are looking for new leadership and a new message they hope will reinvigorate their ranks and bring them to victory in 2000. What is both suprising and interesting is that in crafting their “new message” the majority of the speakers at the event reverted to old Republican themes of attacking Congress – even though Republicans have controlled Congress since 1994!

The story that came out of last week’s meeting was that Republican leaders were attacking their own congressional leadership for having sold-out Republican principles by agreeing to a compromise balanced budget agreement with President Clinton.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle set the tone for this attack when he chided Congress for compromising on principle. Instead of lowering taxes and reducing government, he said, this agreement with President Clinton would increase tax revenues and make government larger. And in response to the charge that if there had not been a compromise the government might have experienced a costly shutdown, Quayle and others responded that a shutdown on principle would have been better than compromise.

As the party debate unfolded during the three-day meeting, several trends became apparent. The hard-line of the economic conservatives appears to have put the Republican Congressional leadership on the defensive. There was no talk of moderating the hard-line on social issues, while previous Republican meetings in recent years have had some discussion of opening the party to more liberal views on some social issues, these questions have not been raised in months. Finally, there has been a total absence of any discussion of foreign policy issues indicating a disturbing consensus that has developed within the party. Leadership on these issues has been ceded to the neo-conservatives and Christian fundamentalist hard-liners.

This was brought home last week by two other relevant events, the conclusion of the convention of the Christian Coalition and the return to the U.S. of the new Republican Party chairman Jim Nicholson who had just completed a visit to Israel and Jordan.

The new President of the Christian Coalition, the group founded by television evangelist Pat Robertson, announced at the completion of their annual meeting that during the next year the group would focus on some foreign policy initiatives. Since the Coalition is fanatic in its support for right-wing Israeli policies and is the group responsible for recent efforts to impose sanctions on countries accused of persecuting Christians, their work can be quite troublesome.

Even more disturbing was the press conference held by the Republican Party’s new Chairman in which he pledged to use pressure to keep President Clinton from pushing Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.
“You’re going to see more attention given to Israel by the Republican leadership and that will result in more pressure on the Administration to help the [Israeli] government get to peace through continued resilience, strength, and preparedness, not through softness,” said Nicholson.

While in Israel, Nicholson visited the recently opened tunnel in Jerusalem that sparked bloodshed one year ago and went to see construction of controversial settlements at Jabal Abu Ghnaim. He justified both Israeli acts saying that they did not look “provocative” and he would not “second-guess” the decisions of the Israeli government on these matters.

One final note: the shift to the hard-line right has gone so far that there are reports that the nomination of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asia may be in trouble. A group of Senators (including one Democrat) have written to Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Jesse Helms, urging him not to approve Indyk’s appointment until Indyk pledges to support the movement of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Other Republican Senators and the National Jewish Coalition (a Republican Party organization) have attacked Indyk accusing him of criticizing Israel and meddling in its internal affairs.

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