Posted on May 17, 1999 in Washington Watch

The Republican Party (GOP) is working its way through more than a Presidential primary. The 10 announced candidates for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination are, in fact, engaged in a struggle to define their party.

As dominant as the GOP appeared to be during the 12 years of Reagan and Bush, deep fissures have opened up that cost Republicans national victories in the past two presidential contests. And despite winning control (or, as some have suggested, as a result of winning control) of both the Congress and the Senate in 1994, the internal divisions that plague Republicans have not been healed.

The fundamental divide within the GOP is between its economic wing and its social values wing. This is also reflected, to a degree, in the differences in style and philosophy between the more traditional business-oriented, pragmatic Republican governors, and the more hard-line ideological conservatives who currently hold sway in the Congress.

It is ironic that the problem that so plagues today’s GOP actually began with Ronald Reagan–the charismatic leader whose 1980 and 1984 victories were thought to have launched an extended period of Republican control of the White House. Reagan was an economic conservative and a Cold-War hawk, but he also embraced the social morality concerns of the Christian right wing. His message was such that not only Republicans, but also many alienated middle class working families found comfort with it–helping him to build the broad coalition that created two national victories.

The Democratic Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s was itself torn amongst its major component factions and lacked a unifying message. Working and middle class Americans, who had been long-time Democrats, felt abandoned by Democratic leaders who appeared to be more focused on “causes” and what were termed “special interests” (for example, feminism, environmentalism, and abortion rights to name a few).

Given the traumatic social change that had gripped America during these turbulent decades, those same working and middle class voters felt betrayed by what some described as the arrogance and elitism of the Democrats and shifted their votes to Reagan and the Republicans.

The Reagan sweep of 1980 was more than a political victory; it also helped to launch a social movement. During the eight years of Reagan’s presidency, there was a virtual explosion of conservative groups all across the United States.

George Bush, who had been Reagan’s Vice President, may have succeeded him as President in the election of 1988, but the social conservative movement did not view him as Reagan’s heir. Bush had, in fact, run against Reagan in 1980 and had challenged both Reagan’s economic policy and his strict social conservatism. Bush had been a part of the more traditional, pragmatic, business-oriented wing of the GOP.

While Republican Party leaders supported Bush in 1988, the social movement organized against him. It was in the 1988 Republican primary campaign that the right-wing Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson ran for the presidency and lunched his crusade to build a Christian Coalition.

Bush was elected President, but Robertson used the momentum of his campaign to organize a movement that within a few years gained control of almost one-third of the GOP’s grass roots structures.

Bush’s reelection bid in 1992 was hurt by the challenge he received from these ideological conservatives. He lost and the fragmentation of the Reagan coalition was now a political reality.

Bill Clinton’s Democratic victory in 1992 was made possible both by this GOP disarray and also by Clinton’s studied attempt to redefine and rebuild the Democratic Party. Clinton recaptured the center of the political spectrum for Democrats so that working and middle class voters once again came to believe that Democrats were concerned for their families and their futures.

In a low turnout congressional election in 1994 the hard-line conservatives of the Republican Party, strongly wedded to the Christian right wing, won control of Congress in a major victory. But these victories, in fact, further contributed to the fissures within the Republican Party and to a worsening of the Party’s image among some voters.

The message and style projected by this new Republican congressional leadership has been seen as rigid, arrogant and mean-spirited–the very opposite of the charismatic warmth of Ronald Reagan.

The dominance of the social conservatives and the Christian Coalition in the GOP grass roots has created a situation where in order to win the Republican presidential nomination, a candidate must so transform himself and his message that he cannot easily shift back to a more centrist message to win the national election. What worked for Republicans in low-turn out congressional campaigns could not produce a national victory.

This was Bob Dole’s experience in 1996 and this is precisely the situation that at least some of the Republican contenders for the 2000 nomination want to avoid.

It is this struggle within the Republican Party, for its message and its image, which provides the backdrop for the current contest.

On the one side, there are those who claim to be the heirs of Reagan. They, for the most part, represent the more hard line conservatives who are competing for the support of the Christian fundamentalists: former Vice President Dan Quayle, billionaire Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan.

Forbes is an interesting example of what has happened to the GOP. In 1996 when Forbes ran his first campaign for President, he ran strictly as an economic conservative. He called for a flat tax and smaller government. The religious right criticized Forbes because he refused to adhere to their moral agenda. The new Steve Forbes of 1999 now combines his economic program with a strict adherence to the social ideology of the Christian right.

While equally hard-line on the social morality issues, Bauer and Buchanan are running as what can only be described as anti-free market, anti-free trade populists. They both oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement and U.S. involvement in the World Trade Organization. Their brand of economic nationalism and protectionism is opposed by pro-business traditionalists within the GOP.

On the other hand, the current frontrunners in the Republican race, George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole, appear to be attempting to move the party to a more moderate, centrist view. Dole, for example, has avoided taking the more hard-line positions on abortion and gun rights that were adopted by her husband in 1996. Bush has also sought to portray himself as a more moderate political leader coining the term “compassionate conservatism” to define his approach to governing.

What both Bush and Dole are attempting to avoid is the image of rigidity and mean-spiritedness that came to characterize Republicans after their 1994 congressional victory and the prolonged impeachment drama.

This they may succeed in doing for themselves. But whether or not they will be able to amass enough votes to win the Republican nomination still remains to be seen. The grass roots strength of the religious right wing and the hard-line conservatives will be tested in the 2000 race. What is at stake is not only the nomination, but the direction the GOP will take in the next century.

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