George W. Bush now owns the Republican Party. He has brought it to the promised land. For the first time in nearly 50 years, Republicans control everything -- the White House, the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, even the Supreme Court, which made Bush president.
Moreover, Bush has remade the Republican Party in his own image. That's what the overthrow of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was all about last month. The barely disguised White House campaign to get Lott out and Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in was an effort to put a new face on the GOP. Bush's face. Frist, after all, is Bush's man.
Not only has Lott given way to Frist, but two stalwarts of the old GOP have departed. Sen. Jesse Helms is out, replaced by Elizabeth Hanford Dole. Strom Thurmond is out, replaced by Lindsey O. Graham -- once a John McCain presidential supporter.
It's a whole new GOP.
Or is it? The Republican Party is still a very Southern party. Even more so after the November elections. The shift from Lott to Frist does not represent much of an ideological change. Both senators are staunch conservatives with similar voting records. In ratings compiled by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, Lott got 5% in 2000; Frist got 0%. The American Conservative Union gave Lott 100%, Frist 92%. The Christian Coalition of America gave both senators 92%.
If there's a difference between the old GOP and the new GOP, it's one of style more than ideology. Bush, after all, is a pretty conservative fellow. But he's a compassionate conservative. Does that make a difference? You bet it does.
The Republican Party has long suffered the burden of being the party of mean old white guys -- like Helms and Thurmond and Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole and Tom DeLay and Phil Gramm (gone) and Dick Armey (gone). Plus any number of venomous radio talk-show hosts. Bush has set out to turn the Republican Party into a party of nice guys. Like him. And Frist -- a physician with a friendly bedside manner. Kinder, gentler conservatives.
The objective is to attract swing voters. That means suburban voters -- those soccer moms and office-park dads who now make up a solid majority of the electorate. In the old days before the 1992 election, Republicans knew how to reach suburban voters. They did it with one word: taxes. More precisely, two words: low taxes. Moving to the suburbs usually means becoming a homeowner. Homeowners don't see themselves as beneficiaries of public services. They see themselves as taxpayers. Ever hear of Proposition 13?
Taxpayers want government to do two things: keep taxes low and keep the economy booming. Do that, they say, and we can solve our problems for ourselves. The Republican lock on the suburbs was broken in 1992, however, after the first President Bush. Bush did two things that infuriated suburban voters. He let the economy falter. And he raised taxes. Ask any suburban politician what's the fastest way to commit political suicide, and he or she will tell you: Raise taxes.
One of the first things Clinton did as president was raise taxes, mostly on the wealthy, to help get the deficit under control. Betrayed again! Suburban voters (among others) wrought a terrible vengeance on the Democrats in 1994. They gave the GOP control of Congress, which has lasted eight years (interrupted briefly by Vermont's James M. Jeffords' switch to independent in the Senate) and is likely to continue for a while.
Clinton got the message. He set about reassuring suburban voters that the Democratic Party had changed. It was no longer the party of taxes and spending. "The era of big government is over," Clinton proclaimed in January 1996. He sealed the message with a spectacular economic boom (or bubble, as many would now call it).
What were Clinton's major policy achievements as president? Three things: welfare reform, free trade and a balanced budget -- none of them of much interest to Democrats. But those policies served to minimize the differences between the two parties on economic policy. For the first time, large numbers of suburban voters went Democratic, with Clinton splitting the suburban vote with Dole in 1996.
Suburban voters are united in their economic interests (low taxes). But they are divided on values (there are liberal suburbs and conservative suburbs). As long as the economic issue is neutralized -- which means, as long as the Democrats don't backslide to their old taxing-and-spending ways -- suburban voters will be free to divide along cultural lines. Exactly as they did in 2000 and 2002.
Texas suburbs, for instance, are solidly conservative, while California's suburban voters tend to have more liberal cultural values. That's what unbuckled the Sunbelt, which had been the basis of the "emerging Republican majority" under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Consider this: In Texas, every statewide office and both Senate seats has now gone to Republicans. In California, every statewide office and both Senate seats have now been captured by Democrats.
Democrats have also figured out how to mine another source of suburban votes: women, the famous soccer moms who were so crucial to Clinton's survival. The key to their support? The Democrats' commitment to protect "the safety net." Women feel more vulnerable in the marketplace than men. They want assurances that government will be there to protect them.
Men are more likely to be risk-takers. They favor an entrepreneurial approach to government, as Bush does, in which private investment competes with Social Security, private insurance with Medicare, private schools with public schools. Also, the U.S. threatens war on "evildoers." To many women, that sounds more like a high-wire act than a safety net.
Bush wants to retake the suburbs. That's why the first thing he did as president was push through a huge tax cut. It was his way of saying, "I am not my father." Or, as he put it, "This is not just 'No new taxes.' This is, 'Tax cuts for everyone.' "
But tax cuts aren't enough to hold the suburbs anymore. Not as long as the Democrats don't push the suburbs away by threatening to raise taxes.
Bush has to figure out a way to reach out to suburban voters who have left the GOP -- women and minorities and well-educated professionals who are reluctant to support a party that is, at its base, a party of Southern white men.
The answer: "compassionate conservatism." The message: Republicans are now a party of tolerance. And a party that will protect the safety net.
In other words, Bush is not going to give up California without a fight. That's why Lott had to go. Soccer moms will not support a party that trafficks in bigotry. But will Frist be any better? After all, he is just as conservative as Lott. Quite likely, yes, he will be better -- as long as he doesn't cross the line and endorse racially tainted causes.
Crossing that line has been a long-standing problem for Republicans. Reagan got in trouble in 1980 when he went to Mississippi and talked about "states' rights." The elder Bush got in trouble in 1988 when supporters ran the Willie Horton ad, and the Bush campaign did not quickly repudiate it. His son got in trouble in 2000 when he spoke at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which at the time banned interracial dating.
After Lott made his now-infamous remarks at Thurmond's 100th birthday party, Bush drew the line. "Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," he said in Philadelphia, to loud applause. When he said that, Bush broke with the past -- including his own past.
And he sent out notice: The Bush Republican Party is tolerant, inclusive and compassionate. Like Frist, who is a deeply religious man. He spends his vacations doing medical missionary work in the poorest and most dangerous parts of Africa. His first public statement after being elected Senate majority leader reflected his religious values. "My wife [Karyn] and I went to the same church that I've gone to on the eve of my elections in 1994 and 2000," he said. "While there, my mind kept returning to that passage in Proverbs: 'In his heart, a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.' "
Bush intends to reconquer the suburbs with values. Not conservative values. Compassionate values.
And policies? As 2003 opens, the spotlight is on Republicans. The federal government is all theirs. Now they have to prove that compassionate conservatism is more than a slogan.