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