The Blog

THE VALUE-FREE GOP

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



In 1996, Republican party candidates took little or no credit for their legislative accomplishments, feared the label "extremism," began describing themselves as full of "common sense," and finally maintained their control of the House and Senate by going on the attack against their Democratic rivals in any way they could in the final two weeks of the campaign. Newt Gingrich trashed his millionaire opponent for paying hourly teenage employees the minimum wage -- an election-year conversion for a man who fancies himself a conviction politician and surely still believes the minimum wage is a foolish and destructive economic policy, particularly for teenagers.


But Gingrich was just following the dominant trend in this year's Republican campaigns: He sought to de-ideologize himself and his election. Those were Bob Dole's instincts too. Dole chafed against his own pro-life stance and refused to make a major issue out of partial-birth abortion, or school choice, or gay marriage. He finally saw the light on the California Civil Rights Initiative in the last two weeks, but then, terminal patients are willing to try any wild idea in search of a miracle cure.


Dole did, however, go for a tax cut, while Gingrich toted around an ice bucket to symbolize the kinds of congressional reforms he had supervised in the previous two years. These are important policy matters, to be sure. But they are insufficient. The two most important figures in the Republican party this year did nothing -- nothing -- to connect these issues to what really matters, especially in presidential elections. Tax cuts and ice buckets are all well and good (tax cuts particularly), but they speak to worldly concerns -- like economic growth, a slightly higher living standard, the efficiencies and petty corruptions of public service. They say little about higher and more fundamental concerns. They do not answer questions about the spiritual health of the nation. They do not address the ominous sense we all have that Americans are, with every intake of breath, unconsciously inhaling a philosophy that stresses individual pleasure over individual responsibility; that our capacity to be our best selves is weakening; and that if we have grown weak, what in God's name will today's children be like when they assume the burdens of adulthood?


Bill Clinton built his reelection campaign on these questions. And as Republicans watched in baffled amazement, the man reviled as a draft-dodging philanderer and inveterate dissembler got to the right of the GOP on questions of morality. He transmuted worries about children's physical health -- tobacco, unsafe drinking water -- into a display of concern about their spiritual well-being. He talked about the literacy of eight-year-olds. He knit together ideas about responsibility and community. He sought passage of a measure to make it easier for parents to keep their kids from watching TV shows they think inappropriate. To express both his disgust at their flight from responsibility and his dislike of weaponry, the president announced that he would prevent deadbeat dads from owning guns.


It's all blather, of course. Smoking is a medical problem, not a problem of the soul. There is no tapwater crisis. Children are already supposed to be fully literate by the age of eight, but aren't because the union-controlled schools Clinton treats as sacrosanct are a scandal. The V- chip won't work. The "deadbeat dads and guns" business is a cynical synthesis of focus-group research. But in a moral landscape so parched, Clinton's values pitch was the only one made in 1996. Some say this was a peace-and- prosperity election, and it may have been, but peace and prosperity weren't the only things -- or even the main things -- Clinton talked about. He talked about values.


I was taught to dislike the word "values" by my teacher Allan Bloom, who explained it was a subversive way of reducing absolute truths to mere cultural biases. The fact that it has become the substitute word for "virtues" or "morality" suggests the spiritual poverty of this cultural moment. Be that as it may, the Republican party was supposed to be the party of values- not just family values, but values more broadly defined.


The GOP assumed that mantle with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The smug and superior attitude of American liberalism was dealt a crushing blow in that decade when Reagan became the most public advocate of Western values - - for freedom against tyranny, and for the sanctity of life under law. It is common wisdom to think Reagan won the election of 1980 with the question, " Are you better off than you were four years ago?" But Reagan's question was not only about the economy; it was about the feeling that totalitarianism was on the move, that Jimmy Carter had lost faith in the American people, that the country was going to hell for many more reasons than stagflation and oil shocks. It, too, was about values.


The leading lights of the Republican party have been fleeing values for four years now. The Republican party's failure to place the 1996 election in a broader and more resonant context did not happen by accident. I am not referring to voters here but to the party's apparat, both elected officials and unelected bureaucrats -- the Republican National Committee and its staff and the legion of consultants who have taken the behind-the-scenes roles once played by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms.


The first indication of the party's fear of values came in the aftermath of the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. I could go into detail about how poll data demonstrate the convention was not the disaster everyone said it was at the time (Bush fared no worse from it than Dole did from the universally praised if stomach-turning 1996 convention), but that doesn't matter. What matters is that the party apparat thought it a disaster; indeed, the apparat sought to pin the blame for Bush's defeat on the "hijacking" of the party by Pat Buchanan's supposedly "divisive" talk of a "culture war."


Now, I am not an admirer of the Buchanan speech. Its bitter talk about " taking the country back block by block" was a grotesque caricature of a serious and important idea about reclaiming lost ideals and ways of life. But Buchanan at least does not wish to be loved by those who naturally loathe him. The GOP apparat does. Mary Matalin talks lovingly in her book All's Fair about the Washington Post's Ann Devroy, known for her bitchy and ad hominem coverage of the Bush White House. Gingrich's press secretary sups and kids around with the leftist journalist Sidney Blumenthal and calls Blumenthal his friend; Blumenthal detests conservatives and Republicans so much he would laugh and sing if Blankley were suddenly hauled off to jail.


Of course people on opposite sides of the political spectrum can be friends, but by definition, enemies can't be friends. The apparat sought approval from people who believed, and told the world, that the Republican party had become hostile, intolerant, and a force for ill in America. Why? Because Dan Quayle dared to say that it was wrong for a TV sitcom to make light of illegitimacy. Because people who believe that abortion is murder wouldn't somehow sit down and shut up and stop making people feel bad for doing it.


Eight days after Bush left the White House, the Republican National Committee descended on St. Louis's Union Station to choose a new party chairman.


The RNC is not what you think it is -- it's made up of 165 people, three from each state organization and a few territories. And they are not, to put it mildly, a bunch of Christians sitting around plotting to make snake- handling and glossolalia the state religion, while some supply-siders huddle in the corner showing each other a napkin with the Laffer Curve on it autographed by Laffer himself. They are mostly party hacks, the kind of people who have 15 handwritten notes apiece from George Bush hanging in their living rooms.


There were three serious candidates for chairman that year -- Spence Abraham (now a senator from Michigan), John Ashcroft (now a senator from Missouri), and Haley Barbour. They are all pro-life, but Barbour had the advantage of being less passionate on the subject than Abraham and Ashcroft. Barbour won because the committeemen and women recognized themselves in him -- a longtime political hack with exceptional skills for whom the Republican party was more akin to a team than a cause. In his first press conference as chairman, right there in Union Station, he told those of us in the room that he subscribed to the idea that the GOP was a big tent with room in it for people of all views.


There's a reason conservatives are offended by the idea of the "big tent": It's an offensive idea. Of course a bigger tent is better than a smaller one when you're talking about a political party. But a "tent" has no value in itself. Only what happens inside the tent matters. When Barbour and others talk about the "big tent," they are sending a signal that the Republican party is unwilling to take on the task of winning people over to conservative ideas, to figure out how ideological concerns can best be translated into public policy and public relations.


For example, the avoidance of values-talk these past four years has primarily been a means of avoiding the issue of abortion. But it is manifestly untrue that abortion is too divisive an issue for the party to use to its advantage, even if it is done well and carefully. Ronald Reagan and George Bush were pro-life; there is no evidence that their stand hurt them. Indeed, we know in the case of Reagan that it may have helped him even among those who are not pro-life. One of the qualities people most admired about Reagan is that he stood up for what he believed, even if they disagreed with him and particularly if his stand appeared lonely and unpopular.


That is a truth other politicians can learn from (assuming, of course, that they believe in something, anything, which many of them don't). This isn't just a matter of ideology. In a world in which people increasingly describe themselves as "conservative" without really knowing what the word means, the party that defines "conservatism" best is the party that will hold the key to the future.


Define conservatism the GOP did after taking over Capitol Hill in 1995. But it did so almost entirely in economic and managerial terms. The Contract With America is a document primarily about government: its interference in the economy, the way it takes too much money from the American people and small businesses and big businesses and exempts itself from the laws everybody else must follow. Lawyers and liberal cabinet departments and agencies are bad; defense spending and a balanced budget are good. Again, I agree with all this, but the Contract is more notable for what is missing: values. The Republican party comes together to stand not for a capacious moral vision, but for libertarianism. Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition, who appear in Democratic nightmares as a puppetmaster pulling the strings of the American government, were rewarded with only one section of one item out of the ten in the Contract. Guess what it was? A tax cut (or more precisely, a $ 500 per- child tax credit).


Values-talk was barely spoken in 1995 by senior party officials. The only memorable remark came from Gingrich, when he blamed liberalism for the horrifying incident in which a pregnant mother was slashed and her nearly- born baby untimely ripped from her womb. He had previously blamed liberalism for Susan Smith's murder of her own toddlers and had said Woody Allen's affair with his teenage stepdaughter was somehow representative of the Democratic party. To put it mildly, Gingrich is not very good at values-talk.


For his part, Dole seemed to think Clinton's lack of values was so blatant that the values-hungry American people would turn to him, exemplar of what it means to sacrifice for your country. But the point about values-talk that neither Gingrich nor Dole could grasp is that it cannot be personal. Values are, by definition, abstract. They deal with matters higher and more enduring than the flaws or evils of individuals (even presidents). The purpose of talking about values is that it is supposed to resonate with voters, to give them a sense that you are on their side, and to lead them to ask the questions you want them to ask on their own.


If Dole had decided to make a case for a more honest, more decent, more civil culture -- instead of making the case for himself as a more honest, more decent, more civil man than Clinton -- people might have come independently to understand the ways in which a president's character does affect how they feel about their country and what their children need to learn about lying and getting away with it. Dole was misguided to tell voters to vote for him because he was a better man for a better America. That slogan smacks of vanity, and we all recognize vanity is a human weakness. The naked expression of it suggested that Dole was not nearly as good a man as he was claiming to be.


If the GOP continues to avoid values-talk in Dole's aftermath, if it continues to make itself the party of the wallet instead of the party of the soul, it will be placing all its hopes for the future on the Democratic party's capacity for misbehavior and on the business cycle. Maybe the Democrats will revert to the old-style liberalism Americans properly detest. Maybe Clinton's deceits will become so undeniable in the second term that the nation will turn away in revulsion from his party. Maybe the economy will go into a deep recession. These calamities could very well happen.


Even if they do, over the longer run a successful party has to be more than the beneficiary of its opponents' mistakes. An often courageous opposition to liberalism has brought Republicans into the majority in Congress and set the stage for a realignment that is not merely political but philosophical as well. But as this most recent campaign showed, mere opposition to liberalism is no longer enough. Nor are tax cuts, deregulation, and character issues. The Republican party will fail, and fail soon, if it does not find the fortitude and the wit to speak to the American people about the truths that matter most.




By John Podhoretz