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A New GOP

Why conservatives are the most eager to dump Trent Lott as Senate majority leader.

2:45 PM, Dec 18, 2002 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Between Lincoln's election in 1860 and Herbert Hoover's defeat in the 1932 landslide, only Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson broke the long string of Republican presidents. Barry Goldwater, running on a straight states' rights platform, was able to carry six states. For the Democrats, it was Hoover's implosion that opened the floodgates, bringing in hordes of new voters. For the Republicans, the same sort of process took place in slow motion, as the Democrats' failures on a series of issues allowed them to move onto enemy turf. The split over the Vietnam war helped elect Richard Nixon; George McGovern's left turn led to a landslide for Nixon; Jimmy Carter's collapse on a whole range of issues led to Ronald Reagan's two terms. The great Democratic party of the mid-20th century, and the post-1980 Republican party, were not built on racial repression. They were both tainted by it, but each got its big break with the total collapse of the opposing party, and cemented its gains with solid successes on the foreign policy and war-making fronts. Southern voters--and, yes, some racist voters too--were in the coalitions assembled by Reagan and Roosevelt, but over time became smaller parts in them, overwhelmed by the influx of new kinds of voters, with different and other concerns. Eventually, each party reached the stage where its remnant had become so greatly outnumbered that it was able to move out from and beyond it. This happened to the Democrats in the mid-1960s. It is happening to the Republicans now.

For a long time now, the "Republican South" has been changing its face and its nature. It is still south, and it is still Republican, but these words now mean different things. This new South is high-tech, sub- and ex-urban, and very much more like the rest of the country. Southern states that moved into the Republican column in 1964 over civil rights legislation are Republican now because of defense, social issues, and taxes, driven there as the Democrats tended to migrate further to the left. "Republicans are long past the day when they need to manipulate white racial resentments . . . to win in the South," writes Ronald Brownstein in Los Angeles Times. "The ties that bind Republicans to the region are conservative views on taxes, national defense, and social issues such as guns and abortion, no nostalgia for Jim Crow."

Yet as this went on, Democrats made race the all-purpose excuse for their policy failures, dismissing real issues as "code." They could not see that there was a real difference between throwing a riot because your children had to go to a neighborhood school with children of different race from their neighborhood, and expressing concern because your child was taken from his neighborhood school to go to a bad school in a crime-ridden area. They could not see that there were real reasons to object to Michael Dukakis's views about crime beyond the fact that one of the criminals he released to do further harm had been black.

This old habit dies exceedingly hard, as critics still strain to find race-coded clues to Republican victories. Seeking such clues to the Republican sweep this past November, the ever-resourceful New York Times had to go all the way back to an ad attacking affirmative action run six years earlier by Jesse Helms. Another such charge was that the Confederate flag had played a key role in two Republican upsets in Georgia, driving up white voter turnout in the exurbs around the cities. The trouble with this is that the patterns in Georgia tracked exactly the patterns elsewhere in the country, where massive white turnouts in similar neighborhoods feuled the Senate wins of Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Wayne Allard in Colorado, Jim Talent in Missouri, and Bob Ehrlich's big win of the statehouse in Maryland, which had elected Democratic governors for the last thirty years. Nostalgia for the old days of Jefferson Davis must run very high in those states.