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COMMENTARIES ON THE GOP : Drop the Labels, Get on With Job of Reviving Republicanism : Squabbling makes us lose sight of the pressing issues. Meanwhile, the Democrats are busy setting policy.

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Republican haggling about the party’s future is clouded and confused by jargon and slogans. In this debate, no word is more abused or less relevant than “conservative.”

Is Barry Goldwater a conservative? He favors a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Alan Greenspan? He supports President Clinton’s plan to increase income taxes and impose an energy tax.

How about Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr.? They want to legalize marijuana.

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Richard Nixon? He created the Environmental Protection Agency, slashed defense spending while expanding domestic programs and ordered wage and price controls.

No one knows what “conservative” means anymore.

So let’s drop the labels. Instead, let’s look at the core issues that divide our party and will determine its relevance in the 21st Century.

Some Republicans want government to select the private personal behaviors of adult citizens. They want to forbid a family’s right to choose abortion; define which personal relations between consenting adults are OK and which are not; which books and films adults are allowed to see. Other Republicans believe that less government restraint on individual liberty is a better idea. We believe individual mature adults--not bureaucrats, political appointees or politicians--should decide how to live their private lives.

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Some Republicans believe that religious schools do a better job of teaching the values they espouse than do our public schools. So they want to take billions of taxpayer dollars away from public schools and hand them to church schools through government vouchers. Other Republicans believe that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and those other wild-eyed liberals of the 18th Century were correct in fearing and loathing the entanglement of government into religious institutions--and vice versa.

Some Republicans believe civil rights laws unfairly intrude on state and local government prerogatives or interfere with a corporation’s rights to do business however it wants. Others believe in the traditions of the Republican Party which guided America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln (Remember him? He freed slaves.) And Dwight Eisenhower, the man who sent the Army to Little Rock, Ark., to desegregate public schools there.

Some Republicans want to fight any regulations on how a company extracts and exploits natural resources. Other Republicans find themselves more in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt: trust-buster, creator of our national park system, reformer of health, safety and environmental controls. Some of us want the freedom to breathe air we can’t see and trust that the food we eat is safe.

It is incredible to me that we are even having this debate. I find myself asking why people like Robert K. Dornan or William E. Dannemeyer ever switched to the Republican Party. They obviously despise the traditions of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon and Goldwater.

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They, like the GOP’s last failed leader, George Bush, have tried to fashion a party in their own image: a party based on restricting personal liberty, ignoring the theft of basic rights from many citizens, merging our churches with our government, destroying our environment and exhausting our natural resources.

No wonder the GOP lost the presidency, both California Senate seats, and didn’t gain an inch in the state Legislature despite the best reapportionment plan Republicans have seen in 40 years or more.

Hello? Is anybody home?

While the GOP squabbles over these issues, the real political issues of our age are being decided elsewhere, mostly inside the Clinton White House and in Democratic caucuses in Washington and Sacramento.

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The Democrats alone are deciding which economic plans can best produce real wealth and which tax policies can best preserve the blessings of prosperity. Democrats are deciding what foreign policy and military strategy can best ensure peace in the century ahead. The Democrats are deciding the kinds of education our children will receive, the kind of health-care system that will determine how long and how well we live.

Meanwhile, the GOP has degenerated into a party without ideas to match the public’s concerns: no constructive plans to create jobs; no plans to retrain and rehire California’s 200,000 unemployed defense workers; no plans to protect our environment; no plans to create effective new transportation systems. We have let our party become irrelevant to the defining issues of our day, and our party leaders don’t seem to care.

For the sake of our nation, let’s hope Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party do a good job on these challenges.

As long as Republicans continue squabbling over a narrow range of moral and religious issues instead of promoting new answers for our social, economic and environmental challenges, we’re out of the real game. If we lose, we’ve no one to blame but ourselves.

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