Though it now seems likely that the Republicans will retain—and perhaps expand—their narrow majority in the House of Representatives, the House GOP caucus remains riddled with vexatious regional and ideological divisions. The din of presidential scandal may have kept Democrats from exploiting those divisions in this election season, but the fissures are real and are sure to grow. To hear Republicans tell it, such divisiveness is just the price of being the majority party. But there's a problem with this "big tent" view of the GOP. Every governing coalition is built from multiple and even conflicting constituencies; but their effectiveness depends on how they are able to hold together and act in concert. And on that count the current Republican Party comes up very short. The last several years have shown that the modern conservative coalition is not only unstable, but inherently so.

Thus the party's problems are neither the abrasive personalities of its leaders nor the over-exuberance of a newly elected majority. They are, rather, rooted in the origins of the modern conservative movement itself—specifically, the way the coalition was constructed in opposition and exile during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Because of the particularities of that history, the cleavages within the GOP will likely grow more pronounced over time. And liberals would do well to learn to exploit them.


Seemingly, the congressional Republicans learned their lesson from the debacles of 1995 when the GOP got blamed for shutting down the government. They reined in their more obstreperous members, took the hard edge off the message, and settled into a more congenial and thus sustainable center-right legislative agenda. But that's not what's happening today on Capitol Hill. Rather, on one side there are approximately 40 moderate Republicans from the Northeast who envision a centrist Republican Party based on a judicious cultivation of regional interests, prudent fiscal policy, and a moderate cultural message. At the same time, another group of roughly 70 conservative diehards (who dub themselves the Conservative Action Team) are now publicly discussing the possibility of forcing another government shutdown this winter, counting on President Clinton being so weakened politically that he will have no choice but to capitulate to their demands for a new round of tax and spending cuts. And all the while James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and other grandees of the religious right are threatening fire and brimstone if the congressional Republicans don't start to deliver on the Christian conservative agenda. The party's several constituencies are not just distinct; they are mutually hostile to one another, if not irreconcilable.

Most deliniations of GOP taxonomy begin with the basic division between economic and social conservatives and then further parse divisions within these two groups. The most detailed and systematic of these sketches was put forward shortly after the 1996 election by Bob Dole's former pollster, Tony Fabrizio. On the basis of two comprehensive surveys, Fabrizio divided the party into five basic groups: Deficit Hawks (25 percent to 30 percent), Supply Siders (20 percent), Cultural Populists (25 percent), Moralists (20 percent), and Progressives (5 percent to 10 percent).

But a deeper central fault line in the Republican Party divides the modern conservative movement into reactionary and reformist wings. The reactionary core of the American electorate can be traced, with relative continuity, at least back to the first decades of this century. It was conspicuous in many of the most vitriolic attacks on Franklin Roosevelt and the most spirited defenses of Joe McCarthy. It includes those who fundamentally oppose the modernism and secularism of American society, the internationalism of its foreign policy, and not just "welfare" but the entirety of the welfare state. Nowhere has this continuity been more vividly demonstrated than in the successive candidacies of Patrick J. Buchanan, who has unearthed 1930s conservative isolationism almost intact.

There is also a somewhat larger and more amorphous group for whom the language of conservatism has operated less as a consuming ideology than as a rhetoric of discontent—discontent with the function of the welfare state, not necessarily its goals. Many in this latter category hold to a worldview still broadly congenial to the underlying presuppositions of the post–World War II liberal-moderate consensus, including the need for public education; the federal government's regulatory role in ensuring basic health and safety at home and in the workplace; the federal guarantees of social insurance in the form of Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance; and the principle of progressive taxation. These voters are not hostile to government per se; they just don't like much of what government has done lately. These voters constitute what we might call "reformist conservatives." These are the voters who abandoned the GOP during the shutdown battles of 1995 and who despise Newt Gingrich almost as much as Democrats do.


What I am describing is not simply the standard division between a party's committed ideologues and its fuzzy periphery. Most political coalitions succeed because, at the end of the day, even committed ideologues are willing to compromise. What makes the conservative coalition so fragile is that the two sides often turn out to be talking about two different things entirely.

For the last 30 years, the unique coalitional arrangements of political conservatism have allowed Republican politicians to conflate the very different agendas of reactionary and reformist conservatives. The southern strategy, which Richard Nixon inaugurated and Ronald Reagan cemented, congregated all the most reactionary and abrasive elements of the American electorate within the Republican Party. Yet it did much more than simply gain their votes. The language that appealed to the ideological diehards cast a broad penumbra. It also appealed to a much broader group who were defecting from the Democrats in the early 1970s, a larger group of the vaguely discontented.

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This kind of coalition, however, could maintain coherence only in opposition, only in motion. Once this tense, largely rhetorical coalition came to power and was forced to deal with substantive questions, it was bound to break apart. Republicans got significant mileage out of using wedge issues against the Democrats at a time when they themselves had few concrete alternatives to offer. Resentment against the dependent poor allowed Republicans to implicitly challenge middle-class social entitlements without ever attacking those entitlements directly. As inflation pushed ordinary taxpayers into ever higher brackets ("bracket creep"), Republicans were able to sell a flatter tax code without having to challenge progressivity directly.

Conservatives were very much in power during the first six years of the Reagan presidency, but Democratic control of the House provided a significant brake on implementing an affirmative conservative agenda. Just as significantly, the conservative coalition was newer, and its reactionary core was more willing to see its pet issues go unattended. This fault line only came out into the open in the tumultuous government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. The events of 1995 unhinged the two groups, splitting apart those who want to dismantle the welfare state from those who are frustrated with its inefficiencies and had been using the radical language of the right to express their discontent.

The Republicans did achieve a great deal in the 104th Congress, but only at a severe cost in popular support. What did the greatest damage with swing voters were the GOP's proposed cuts in education, attacks on the most elemental forms of environmental protection, and a political climate that clearly exposed the equation between tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts for the middle class. They retained their majority only by spending much of 1996 retreating from their original legislative agenda. They eased off on their plans to cut Medicare; they agreed to support the labor-backed minimum-wage increase; and they even retreated on their earlier efforts to shut down institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting Service, which are so hated by the right. Since then, plans for a flat tax—so dear to conservatives—have been kept off the table for fear of running into a similar debacle.

A Kinder, Gentler GOP

In his recent article in the Atlantic Monthly on "The Southern Captivity of the Republican Party," Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at the Weekly Standard, argues that the Republicans' problem is not simply that they are captive to a constituency that is "too extreme" or "too far to the right." It is rather that they are beholden to the peculiar traditionalism of one regional subculture—that of the South. He argues that this reliance on and betrothal to southern cultural politics, which helped the GOP so much in the past, has now reached what he calls the "tipping point"—the point at which it alienates more voters outside the South than it gains within it. But there is something more to it than that.

There has always been a reactionary core of the American electorate located disproportionately, but by no means exclusively, within the South. The difference, however, is that in past party configurations that reactionary core has tended to be divided across partisan lines or submerged within larger coalitions with broadly reformist impulses. In fact, for much of this century, both parties contained within their ranks deeply conservative elements. In the North they tended to be Republicans; in the South they tended to be Democrats. Another way of expressing this is that there have always been sizable segments of the American electorate that want to teach creationism in the public schools or believe that Kofi Annan is sending black helicopters to steal their lawn furniture. But seldom have they been so politicized on the issues that separate them from the bulk of the national electorate or been so singularly identified with one political party.

For some time, many Republican Party regulars and politicians outside the South have wanted to come up with a way in which the party could shore up its national dominance while shedding its identification with and dependence upon the more abrasive elements of the conservative movement. This was, to a degree, the project of the Bush presidency—the message behind his election-year call for a "kinder, gentler America." But as the Bush years demonstrated, Republicans have great difficulty energizing or communicating to a mass electorate without appeals to the sort of socially divisive issues that most Americans find repellent. The recent GOP-inspired California ballot initiatives to end affirmative action and penalize illegal aliens have galvanized crucial constituencies and helped elect Republicans. But they have also tarnished the party's reputation in the nation as a whole. Conversely, the moderation typified by George Bush failed dismally to energize the party's reactionary base. Reagan, in that respect, may have been unique. His substantive policies appealed to the true reactionaries, while his persona communicated reassuring moderation. It's hard to think of another Republican politician with Reagan's magic, and it's possible that even Reagan's ability to span the divide was rooted in a very particular historical moment.

The difficulties in reinventing Rockefeller Republicanism are now being faced by what remains of the moderate wing of the Republican Party—the saving remnant of roughly 40 moderate Republican congressmen from the Northeast such as Jack Quinn of New York, Michael Castle of Delaware, and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut. Many of these representatives hold views that would make them almost indistinguishable from moderate Democrats in other parts of the country—especially in the South. Most were early supporters of the 1996 minimum-wage increase and dissenters from the GOP leadership on campaign finance reform; most are pro-choice. Take the example of upstate New York's Sherwood Boehlert. Boehlert has a sterling record on the environment, opposes school vouchers, talks up PBS, and even voted for Bill Clinton's ill-fated 1993 stimulus package. The most he is willing to say on taxes is that there should be "less rather than more."

When I spoke to Boehlert he argued that the "moderate point of view is prevailing" among House Republicans, and he pointed to the minimum-wage in crease, laws that protect the environment, and even the fact that the NEA is "alive and well." Jack Quinn, another GOP moderate, makes a similar argument and claims that the moderate wing "saved the majority" for the GOP in 1996. There is some truth in these statements—particularly the second. But the general optimism is misplaced. As the moderates themselves frequently point out, they have functioned like an electoral canary in a coal mine for the House GOP, signaling the leadership, through their defection, when the legislative agenda becomes too noxiously rightist for the country as a whole.

There is, however, little reason to believe that House conservatives have reconciled or will reconcile themselves to Boehlert's "moderate point of view." By analogy, it would have been great for Democrats if they could have legislated the integrationist civil rights agenda in the 1960s and still held on to the votes of southern segregationists. But politics tends not to work that way. The counterweight of the northeastern moderates may be necessary to keep the GOP viable as a national party. But even if conservative politicians were inclined to make a cynical move in the direction of moderation, they would still be dependent on the votes of core conservatives who would find such a stance anathema. Not only is the Republican Party dependent on the votes of core conservatives—who make up a substantial proportion of the Republican electorate—but they are just as dependent on these core conservatives to impart energy and motion to the Republican Party. Without the ideological diehards, the Republican Party really is little more than a party of the country clubs and the suburbs—a big ship on a flat sea.

Some imagine that all the Republicans need to secure the Revolution of 1994 is a Republican in the White House or veto-proof majorities in Congress. But that ignores their more deep-seated dilemma. As long as they hold the reins of power, they are faced with a stark alternative: they can act on their basic agenda and alienate public opinion, or they can pull their punches and condemn themselves to permanent rebellion and antagonism on their right. Larger GOP congressional majorities won't solve their problem; they will only make it worse.

Fools for the Right

Many of the "wedge issues" that worked so well for the Republicans in the past now present them with problems similar to those discussed above. Nowhere is this more the case than in the Republican Party's relationship with Hispanic voters. Democrats would certainly be wrong to assume that Hispanic voters are natural Democratic voters. Republicans could devise a message that played to Hispanic traditionalism on moral and social issues. The only problem is that sustaining Hispanic support in states like Texas and California would require avoiding conspicuous attacks on immigration, affirmative action, and the Spanish language. It is true that not a few Hispanic voters support reasonable limits on immigration, oppose affirmative action, and even dissent from the multicultural orthodoxy on bilingual education. But the electoral punch of these GOP wedge issues is not really rooted in disagreements about the economic utility of open immigration or the relative efficacy of bilingual education. It's driven by voters who resent the increasing prominence of Hispanics in American public life.

To think otherwise is simply to ignore the racial politics that undergirds GOP strength. The Republicans' bind with Hispanics is not unlike their problem with blacks. Consider the example of Jack Kemp, who has spent much of his career since leaving Congress arguing for a more inclusive Republican Party that could build beyond its base of economic and social conservatives and reach out to traditionally Democratic constituencies. Kemp is, of course, an extreme supply-side conservative on economic issues. But his repeated political failures and his increasing estrangement from powerful segments of the party have been rooted in his seeming inability to appreciate the deep gusts of racial animosity that fill the sails of so many Republican public policy crusades. Most Republicans know that enterprise zones and other nostrums presented as alternatives to "failed" liberal social policy are window dressing. Kemp's problem is that he takes the window dressing seriously, but none of his GOP colleagues have the heart to tell him.

The Republican Party has not, as Kemp would have it, ignored blacks and other minorities. In the last 30 years the Republican Party has increasingly relied on the support of constituencies that feel embittered and resentful toward minorities and the poor. The party's mounting strength in the 1970s and 1980s was based on making inroads among conservative southern whites and appealing to the resentments that Democratic northern, working-class ethnic voters felt against school busing and affirmative action. Thus, the GOP's problem with minorities isn't incidental; it's fundamental. Any genuine effort to aid minorities or the poor would instantly alienate a substantial portion of the Republican base. It's an electoral bind, inexorable and fixed. The Republicans can't be the party of both black opportunity and anti-black resentment, no matter how big the tent. The Democrats tried it; it didn't work.


The Republicans' dilemma on questions of race and minorities is distinct from its reliance on the abrasive cultural politics of the political right. But there is a deep, underlying symmetry. So the task of liberals and Democrats is to push the Republicans in ways that expose these fissures and the coalition's inherent tendency toward breakdown. For whatever the GOP's vulnerabilities, the party can sustain them as long as they are not explicitly attacked.

This disarray within the Republican ranks may create a situation for Democrats not unlike what Republicans faced in 1967 and 1968. In one sense, at the nadir of their political fortunes they were also witnessing political and ideological realignments that would shift the balance of political power to the South and Southwest and thus ensure their dominance for a generation. The key for liberals is to appreciate the nature of the divisions within the Republican Party and to learn how to exploit them. The Clinton administration has been most successful in probing GOP weaknesses on issues like choice, gun control, and environmentalism—issues where Republicans seem wedded to extreme positions that alienate not only Democratic regulars but also affluent suburbanites. The GOP is also vulnerable when Democrats openly contest the politics of taxation and wages. Though Democrats are often cowed in the arena of tax policy, the winning politics of the 1996 minimum-wage increase could be successfully employed against Republican flat tax proposals and other efforts to squeeze still more progressivity out of the tax code.

Democrats often face a natural difficulty attacking the reactionary core of the conservative electorate because the reactionaries use a language of ideas and institutions to which most Americans are deeply attached: Christianity, the family, and so forth. What makes the reactionary voters obnoxious to many Americans, however, is not the idea of church and family but their unstated cultural and religious claims. Democrats should be able to articulate a critical language that distinguishes between Mom-and-apple-pie values and the more ominous cultural aspirations of the reactionary right.

Of course, focusing on ways to isolate the harsh and abrasive elements in the Republican Party is not a complete substitute for propounding an agenda of your own. But the two are complements. One of the cardinal rules of partisan political combat is to make your opponents pay a price for their crazies. Republicans know that rule well enough: they spent the better part of the two decades winning election after election by making Democrats pay at the ballot box for the various excesses of 1968, images that rattled in the public imagination long after the hot glow of the counterculture and the antiwar movement had faded from the Democratic Party. Liberal Democrats should give conservatives a taste of their own medicine.

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