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Whatever Happened to the Moral Majority?

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the New Republic

In the aftermath of the impeachment debacle, the Republican Party is scrambling to present a moderate face. Thirteen of the 31 GOP governors have signed on to the presidential campaign of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas before it has even been announced. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has declared congressional Republicans willing to reach a compromise with President Bill Clinton on issues such as tax cuts and shoring up Social Security. In short, it’s the moderate moment in the GOP.

Or is it? The truth is that conservatives remain in the driver’s seat. No structural barriers exist to stop the right and boost the moderates. The moderate Ripon Society is a standing joke, the Republican Leadership Council is a cipher and the Heritage Foundation looks middle-of-the-road next to the Family Research Council, founded by Gary L. Bauer. Social conservatives such as Dan Quayle, Steve Forbes and Bauer haven’t been finished off by the Clinton fiasco. On the contrary, they’ve been emboldened by it, denouncing America as a degenerate country in need of a moral crusade. They’re regrouping to push the party even farther right. They’re interested not in electoral success, but ideological purity. Like the Democrats of the 1970s, the right is more interested in being right than winning. As the 2000 elections approach, the party may be headed for disaster.

The power of the right has its origins in the Southern coup that took place in the Republican Party in the 1970s. As the Democrats lurched left, Republicans began to reap the gains as they took over the former Democratic stronghold of the South. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the lily-white House managers are all products of the Southernization of the GOP. They mixed pious evangelical notes with tax cutting to taunt a supposedly out-of-touch liberal elite. This “new class,” they argued, made up of professors, Hollywood liberals and other effete types did not represent the real America. The GOP did.

Now that Clinton has co-opted many Republican themes, you might think the Republicans would move away from their polarizing tactics. Not a chance. Evangelicals remain the foot soldiers of the GOP. Country-club millionaires may write the checks for the party, but they don’t knock on doors to get out the vote. Consequently, the right remains able to set the terms of debate in the GOP.

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Consider Bush’s recent call for “compassionate conservatism.” Bush was talking about a kind of conservatism that would avoid harsh rhetoric and reach out to minorities. Instantly, the other GOP candidates, such as Quayle, decried Bush. Perennial presidential candidate and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander denounced Bush’s credo as “weasel words.” Kinder, gentler? That just isn’t part of the GOP’s vocabulary. Were Bush to win the nomination, he would be forced right by the party. Conservatives remember all too well how his father sought to deviate from Ronald Reagan’s policies. They aren’t about to let it happen again.

That’s why one of the most significant developments in the GOP is the push by conservative strategists to keep the party from deviating. Take William Kristol. As publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard, Kristol plays a key role in keeping the party on the right track. His magazine almost singlehandedly pressured the congressional Republicans to push for impeachment when they were wavering in December. “His Finest Hour,” the cover of the Standard glowed when Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) pushed through impeachment. Having helped run the GOP into the impeachment quagmire, Kristol and presidential candidates such as Bauer are now gearing up on the homosexual issue.

The Family Research Council is planning to run a series of television ads about the perils of homosexuality. It complains when GOP congressmen meet with members of the Log Cabin Republicans. But perhaps the most revealing glimpse into its attitudes comes in a new book, “Homosexuality and Public Life.” The book’s jacket flap says, “an imposing array of scientists, psychologists, philosophers and lawyers make the definitive case that homosexuality is both a moral and psychological disorder and a matter for compassionate but urgent public concern.” The introduction is by Kristol. He says conservatives “have to be ready for what will at times be divisive and bitter arguments. . . . The homosexual-rights revolution forces a consideration of whether there is any ground in nature for saying that certain human activities are to be preferred to others.”

But most Americans are not interested in divisiveness and bitterness, as shown by the yawn they greeted the impeachment proceedings with. Since these themes are not resounding with the electorate, other conservatives are hunkering down. They have turned against the American people, becoming mirror images of the New Left ideologues of the 1960s, who excoriated the American people. Thus, Paul M. Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, recently wrote his followers that with the failure of impeachment, “I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. . . . We have to look at what we can do to separate ourselves from this hostile culture.” William J. Bennett, former education secretary, says, “I will not defend the public.” Americans, Bennett declares, “are complicit” in Clinton’s “corruption.”

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This anti-American moral fervor has infected a number of GOP presidential candidates. Last Tuesday, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson felt compelled to call on the far right to cool its rhetoric. Nicholson was trying to protect Bush from the denunciations of other GOP candidates. His fire was aimed at Alexander, Forbes and Patrick J. Buchanan. “Those who aspire to lead our party in 2000 will disqualify themselves from leadership . . . if they train their fire during the presidential campaign on other Republicans,” he said.

They may disqualify themselves from leadership on the national level, but not in the GOP itself. Quayle, Forbes, Buchanan and Alexander are all seeking to play to social conservatives. These theo-cons are hopping mad over what they see as a degenerate America. They’ve turned anti-American. Having been exploited in the past--neither Reagan nor George Bush ever made a serious attempt to roll back abortion--the theo-cons are not likely to be an easy sell this time around. Accordingly, Quayle, Forbes and Alexander are talking tougher on social issues than GOP candidates have previously. Inevitably, their hot rhetoric will drag George W. Bush along in the primaries.

The bottom line remains that it took several decades for the right to take over the GOP. The Clinton debacle is a blip on the screen for them. Unlike the Democratic Party in the 1980s, Republican moderates don’t have an institutional basis of think tanks or other policy organizations. The moderates will have to resuscitate themselves from political oblivion. Why should the far right voluntarily surrender? The Republican civil wars have just begun.*


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