Growth Can Be Mixed Blessing, GOP Discovers
For the Grand Old Party, how sweet it’s been.
Ever since President Reagan’s smashing reelection victory, Republican leaders have been gloating over polls that indicate that the decades-long domination of national politics by their Democratic opponents has ended. Today, surveys suggest, roughly as many voters consider themselves Republicans as Democrats, a dramatic shift that GOP officials see as a rare opportunity to achieve an enduring party realignment.
“We can now face the Democrats on a level playing field,” Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. told Pennsylvania party leaders in Harrisburg recently as he launched a national drive to register still more Republican voters.
Hope to Influence Policy
The ultimate objective of Fahrenkopf and other GOP leaders is to extend the Republicans’ current edge in presidential politics across the electoral board to state and local offices. As the nation’s majority party, they could then shape public policy from the Oval Office to City Hall.
Yet even as they strive to consolidate and expand their recent gains, Republicans are learning that growth is a decidedly mixed blessing in the American political system. Along with taking in millions of former Democratic voters, Republicans also have been acquiring some of the same problems that have long beset the Democrats--the clashing of uneasy bedfellows on issues ranging from budget and tax policy to abortion.
“There are tensions running all through the Republican Party as there are bound to be in any broad political coalition,” said James L. Sundquist, a Brookings Institution specialist in political parties. “And these disagreements are going to become more and more prominent as we get closer to 1988 and the campaign for the presidential nomination.”
Republican leaders acknowledge that their chances of achieving unity and growth in the face of this dissonance depend heavily on maintaining the health of the economy, the circumstance that has been mainly responsible for their success so far under Reagan.
‘Very, Very Positive Trend’
“I think continued voter identification with Republicans is a very, very positive trend and is something that would continue” if economic conditions are favorable, Vice President George Bush, whom many believe Reagan has privately designated as his heir, told The Times. Bush admitted, however, that he is skeptical about “all this euphoria that things have changed forever.”
“God knows what would happen if we’re not doing well in an economic sense,” he said.
Meanwhile, with less than five months gone in Reagan’s second and final term, and with the economy showing signs that it may be slipping, disagreements about the best way to maintain the GOP’s political momentum are already emerging.
At the heart of the disputes is the philosophical commitment of the President and some of his fellow conservatives to diminishing the role of the government, a goal closely linked to Reagan’s tax-cutting economic policies. The President and his partisans credit tax reductions and eased government regulation with spurring the economic recovery and pulling millions of new voters into the GOP fold, particularly in the growth-conscious Sun Belt and among members of the baby boom generation.
Not all Republicans share this less-government-is-better approach. Some--including New York Rep. Jack Kemp, a hero to conservatives and considered to be Bush’s chief rival for the 1988 presidential nomination--worry that continued efforts to curb the role of government might backfire among some of the party’s new constituencies.
“If you are going to broaden the base of the Republican Party, you’ve got to realize that millions of Americans look to government as a lifeline,” Kemp said in an interview. “I have never felt personally that the idea of beating up on government was good politics.
“It’s true that government is best which governs least. But it’s equally true that government is best which does the most for people, and you need a balance between what government does for people and what people should be able to do for themselves.”
And it’s not just low-income Americans whom the continued anti-government drive could alienate. The middle class also has a stake in government, notes conservative analyst Kevin Phillips, who coined the phrase “the emerging Republican majority” while working as a Richard M. Nixon campaign strategist in 1968.
Phillips believes that the determination of some conservatives to cut federal programs, including many that benefit the middle class, may be as politically disastrous as the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration’s efforts to expand government programs during the heyday of the Great Society.
“All the liberal hot dogs in 1965 and 1966 actually thought people could be brought around to like things like areawide busing and model cities,” Phillips said. “But the middle class didn’t like it at all. And conservative ideological free market types have a distorted notion of what the middle class will accept.”
Clear evidence of disagreement on this fundamental issue within the broad coalition that swept Reagan to victory was provided during the congressional debate over reducing the federal budget deficit, generally regarded as a key test of the Republicans’ ability to govern.
Senate Republicans, sensitive to the concerns of their constituents, last month rejected or modified many of the deep cuts in domestic programs sought by the White House. Instead of supporting such cuts, many Senate Republicans joined the Democrats in trimming back defense spending. In the House, Republicans split into three different camps--each offering a budget plan of its own, none of which was able to muster more than slim majority of the House GOP contingent.
Further divisions appear likely to emerge during the long debate over the tax reform plan disclosed by the President last week. Although the proposal has been billed by some Administration strategists as the centerpiece of the GOP drive to achieve political realignment, other Republicans complain that it gives away too much to the very poor and the very rich at the expense of middle-class taxpayers who have been the foundation of the GOP’s voting strength.
Many Republicans Pleased
The Administration’s effort at reform, which involves canceling concessions to some interest groups while preserving the advantages of others, seems bound to inflame some of the incipient conflicts within the GOP. The Administration’s proposal pleases growth-oriented Republicans in the South and West, for example, by maintaining tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, but it disturbs Republicans in New York and other high-tax states by canceling the deduction for state and local taxes.
Temporarily obscured by budget and tax controversies, but potentially more explosive and divisive, are deep differences over social or life style issues. The President’s emphasis on so-called family values, particularly his opposition to abortion, has helped gain the loyalty of some Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists, but at the same time it disturbs many other Republicans who adhere to more permissive or libertarian cultural values.
“As a social conservative, Ronald Reagan has always felt that he would cheerfully give up the Business and Professional Women, the League of Women Voters and people of that sort to get a few Roman Catholic blue-collar wives whose children are beyond the age of accidental pregnancy,” complained Barber B. Conable Jr., a widely respected former Republican congressman from New York and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“And my impression is that the League and the Business and Professional Women are normally a Republican constituency and shouldn’t be driven away,” he said.
This sort of internal fractiousness is a relatively new phenomenon for the GOP. For most of its recent history, it has relied on a relatively homogenous base of business and professional people, mainly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs. “You always used to be able to figure that 75% of Republicans were WASPs, and 75% of WASPs were Republicans,” said Eddie Mahe, a consultant to the Republican National Committee.
In general terms, these Republicans stressed fiscal prudence, accepted the idea that government had a necessary but limited role to play in guiding the economy and promoting social welfare and held moderate views on social issues. Although they had spent most of the years since the advent of the New Deal in the minority, the Republicans had the benefit of internal harmony which periodically allowed them to capture the presidency, capitalizing on voter dissatisfaction with the Democrats.
The relationship between the two parties began to change gradually in the 1960s, largely because the civil rights issue cost the Democrats much of their white Southern support.
Disaffection with the Democrats culminated with the Jimmy Carter Administration’s economic policy failures. The Republicans--by nominating Ronald Reagan, with his formidable personal appeal--were able to win over masses of discontented Democrats and lay the foundation for realignment.
In today’s GOP, the traditional Republican base has been supplemented by a variety of other groups, notably Southern whites, many with deeply held fundamentalist views on religion and social issues--Reagan won about 70% of the Southern white vote in 1984--and young people, including the Yuppies (young upwardly mobile professionals), who, Mahe said, “are mainly interested in two things: making money and having a good time.” Reagan won about 60% of the voters under 30 last November, compared with 45% in 1980.
Although these and other groups were drawn together into the GOP ranks by the surging economy and Reagan’s personal command of the presidency, analysts note some potentially serious conflicts of self-interest among the elements in the new Republican coalition, particularly between Southerners and traditional Republicans.
Other Divisions Sensed
UCLA political scientist John Petrocik believes that conflicts between the Southern populists and the more libertarian Northerners over cultural issues, such as abortion, school prayer and gay rights, could be even more serious than substantive quarrels.
“You can always resolve a substantive policy dispute by cutting the damn thing in half,” Petrocik said. “But the cultural differences have to do with primordial commitments that people have made and that capture a large part of their self-identification.”
Some analysts believe that Republican efforts to solidify and expand their appeal to such disparate groups are foredoomed, in part by the volatile nature of the modern electorate, among whose members loyalty to party is about as stable as a teen-age romance.
“They’re trying to institutionalize something which is not going to institutionalize,” Kevin Phillips said of the Republican effort to propel themselves into permanent majority status.
“What they could wind up with,” UCLA’s Petrocik said, “is a party that develops the same kind of internal tensions and incoherence that the Democrats have. Unless the economy stays really healthy and the Republicans win just by performance, you’re talking about a party that for the next few years may never settle on a vision that all its elements subscribe to.”