• U.S.

Divided They Fall

8 minute read
Michael Duffy/Washington

For Republicans, the battle for 1996 began officially last Tuesday, but it had started unofficially more than two years ago, when George Bush reneged on his no-new-taxes pledge. He sparked a full-scale revolt by the party’s right $ wing, which neither much liked nor trusted him in the first place. Led by Patrick Buchanan, angry conservatives mounted a challenge to Bush in the early primaries. The President, in turn, wooed the right so relentlessly at the Republican Convention in August that he alienated the moderates. Bush never recovered from the error.

Bush’s defeat only deepens the fissures in the party. Lacking the anticommunism and prosperity glue that united them for the past 25 years, conservatives and moderates are certain to fight more fiercely over such already contentious issues as taxes, spending, deficits, abortion rights — and ultimately over the Grand Old Party’s soul. “It’s going to be a typical Republican war,” says Wayne Berman, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign. “It will be no-holds-barred, hand-to-hand combat for at least a year.”

The finger pointing began even before the first vote was cast. On Friday, Oct. 30, a group of conservative activists met in Washington to autopsy the President’s defeat. The wording of their invitation was vitriolic: “The Republican Party, poised for a massive victory just one year ago, is in tatters . . . The Bush forces . . . are already practicing damage control, blaming the conservative movement for the disaster they have caused.” Nor is the bickering confined to the right against the center. The broad middle of the party is divided on economics, privacy and industrial policy. A look at the factions:

The Religious Right. Championed by such figures as Buchanan and televangelist Pat Robertson, this group would return the party to a Reagan-era platform emphasizing tax cuts and aggressive deregulation of business to cure the economy and strict family values to salve the nation’s social ills. The far right would go further, getting the government out of the workplace but into private homes, backing stricter laws against abortion, restricting the rights of homosexuals and widening censorship. Though these so-called cultural conservatives represent only a small fraction of the electorate, they are a powerful force in Republican politics and provide much of the seed money and ground troops essential to winning elections.

Progressive Conservatives. This faction admires the hard right’s faith in values but has little use for its protectionist leanings on economics and trade. The progressives also feel that where the free market fails, government should offer disadvantaged Americans a hand with jobs, education and health care — as long as that aid takes the form of antibureaucratic incentives like tax breaks and vouchers. Their leading apostle is Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, who has spent the past four years trying to reach out to African Americans and other minorities with sermons about enterprise zones, ownership and management of tenant housing, and school choice. This group also includes former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont, former Secretary of Education William Bennett and a host of like-minded Republicans in the House of Representatives. Most G.O.P. veterans acknowledge that whoever takes control of the party in 1996 will have to adopt at least some of the progressives’ ideas. “The country stands ready to reward whichever party can deliver real results at the lowest possible cost,” says James Pinkerton, a Bush campaign aide who is one of the group’s leading thinkers. “And in this day and age, that puts a premium on nonbureaucratic solutions.”

Center-Right Republicans. They believe the party can recapture a majority by emphasizing its two traditional strengths: fiscal restraint and foreign-policy stewardship. The centrists, who include Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Texas Senator Phil Gramm, consider the far right too offensive to independent- minded voters, especially women, and believe the Kempites are too cavalier about the federal budget deficit. An ex-Democrat, Gramm said he could balance the budget within five years, and has gone further than anyone except Ross Perot in calling for reduction in such entitlements as Medicaid and Medicare. Unlike Kemp and other supply-siders, Gramm and his colleagues do not believe tax cuts alone will automatically expand the economy or shrink the deficit and public debt. Gramm is not well liked, but he is respected and has made no secret of his White House ambitions. Though he lacks a political base, Cheney is a more affable conservative who is increasingly mentioned as a compromise candidate by those who despair of uncharismatic Gramm and his stiff medicine.

Pragmatic Republicans. What’s left of the moderate wing of the Republican Party inhabits the state capitals. Socially moderate but economically conservative, this group is generally tough on crime, tolerant of abortion rights and concerned about deficits. It is typified by such G.O.P. Governors as Pete Wilson of California and William Weld of Massachusetts who have had to wrestle with sluggish economies as well as the mood swings of an electorate whose jobs are shifting rapidly from the high-wage manufacturing sector to lower-wage service and information industries. This group is less reluctant than other G.O.P. factions to use government to ease that transition. “There are people in the party who have apoplexy when they hear the words industrial policy,” says Weld, who backs government aid to business to stimulate bank lending and small-business investment. “I have fibrillations, but I don’t have apoplexy.”

Whoever is chosen to replace Rich Bond as party chairman next January will face the task of reuniting the fractious G.O.P. Departing Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber seems the favorite for the job, partly because he is a straight-talking pol who kept his head above water while the President was drowning in his futile re-election bid. Du Pont also wants the party job, and has hinted he would forgo another run at the White House if he got it. Gramm and many moderate Bush operatives believe Labor Secretary Lynn Martin would do a better job of preventing the party from swerving too far to the right.

The tug-of-war over the chairman’s gavel is merely a prelude to the fight over the 1996 nomination. Most party watchers expect Kemp and his fellow progressives to advance their newfangled agenda while wooing the hard right with promises of fealty on family values. With Buchanan, Kemp and possibly Bennett or Robertson crowding the right side of the field, Vice President Dan Quayle can afford to shift more toward the center. Quayle, who keeps a Bush- like foot in nearly all camps, has already begun to moderate his position on abortion, suggesting that Republicans should concentrate on restricting the procedure if they cannot eliminate it altogether.

The apparent front runner for 1996 is Kemp, who ran poorly in the 1988 primaries but won a straw poll of National Committee members at the G.O.P. Convention in Houston this year. Nonetheless, Quayle remains a contender for the nomination because he has spent the past four years crisscrossing the country, collecting political IOUs and raising money. If eight or nine Republicans enter the race in 1996, early primaries might go to the candidate who can attract as little as 18% of the vote.

Despite their differences, nearly all the presidential aspirants are united on what it means to be a Republican. Du Pont notes that the party’s factions and their presidential hopefuls are united by a common belief: “The single common denominator from Bill Weld to Pat Robertson is smaller government and economic growth.” But selling that to the public may not be easy now that George Bush has presided over the largest deficits, highest taxes and biggest government in U.S. history.

Burton Pines, a conservative activist, believes the Republican Party may be sunk if Clinton steers a moderate course and backs free-market solutions to education, welfare reform, health care and job training. “Clinton has the chance,” says Pines, “of becoming the Democrats’ Eisenhower, the man who ran against the New Deal but then confirmed it. If Clinton moves to the right, he has a chance to create a majority party.”

Maybe so. But with the Democrats in Congress divided into nearly as many factions as the Republicans, Clinton may have a difficult time moving boldly in any direction. If, by 1996, predicts political consultant Stuart Rothenberg, Clinton is plagued by a still sluggish economy, a party in rebellion and a disgruntled electorate, “the Republicans get to do what the Democrats did in 1992, which is run as outsiders who want to bring about change.” That’s what got Ronald Reagan elected in 1980, after a Southern Governor who promised new directions failed to deliver during his presidency.

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