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11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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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.