With so much at stake, and victory seemingly within its grasp, why is the Republican Party so close to throwing it all away on intramural squabbles?
Conservatives point to the success of the Contract with America as evidence that the voters have rejected liberalism and embraced conservatism. Liberals and moderates are countering that conservatives benefited from traditionally low turnout for an off-year election, and from a brief lull in the interest of liberal and moderate voters in making their voices heard at the ballot box.
Liberals and moderates within the Republican Party blame the partys right wing for George Bushs defeat in 1992, arguing that the so-called Pat Buchanan convention at which Bush was renominated alienated voters from the GOP and caused them to vote for Clinton or Perot, or not to vote at all. Conservatives strenuously disagree, contending that Bushs defeat resulted from his failure to live up to his no new taxes pledge - and that the right-wing tone of the 1992 Republican convention was a last-ditch, vain effort by Bush to reclaim badly eroded conservative support.
One thing that both sides agree on is, the Democratic Party has been dealt a severe blow, and only by Republicans choosing the wrong course can their Democratic rivals regain any of the electoral credibility lost in November of 1994. Naturally, each faction accuses the other of wanting to pursue the wrong course.
What are the main issues separating the courses each faction wants to take? There are two that are the biggest: abortion and gun control. The stands adopted by each faction offer a glimpse of just what is at work.
To get a perspective on these issues, its necessary to examine the Democratic Party and its stand on both of these issues. So strongly is the Democratic Party identified with support for abortion, and for gun control, that they are the only two issues on which President Bill Clinton and his administration have been unyieldingly consistent. Clinton has wavered on seminal issues ranging from tax policy to gays in the military, but on abortion and gun control he has stood uncharacteristically firm.
Conservative Republicans tend to oppose both abortion and gun control. Finding that members of their own party now want the GOP to become the vanguard for promoting both of these concepts, many conservatives are beside themselves. For years they have derided liberals and moderates in the GOP as me-too Republicans, and used slogans like A choice, not an echo to illustrate why they believe the party should hold firm in opposition. Now as the rival party that promoted abortion and gun control for decades begins to collapse, a new effort has challenged conservatives assumption that that collapse vindicates their views.
There are two possible outcomes to this struggle for the GOPs soul. One is that the conservatives will win out, which will drive pro-choice and anti-gun Republicans to a third party or to the Democratic Party. The latter is unlikely, given that radical left-wing groups still hold sway over the Democrats leadership and are unlikely to surrender that influence to a bunch of ex-Republican carpetbaggers. The political debate, however, will be between liberal support for abortion and gun control, and conservative opposition.
The other possibility is that the liberals and moderates will win, driving conservatives to form a third party. Again, the debate will continue. So why is either faction fighting so hard to take (or keep) control of the GOP?
The traditional two-party system will, at least for the foreseeable future, tend to favor the established parties over any new one. And with the Democrats out of the fight (at least for now) the tactical advantage of having the helm of the Republican Party will be immense in future elections. The side that leaves, or is forced out, must build support from the ground up.
I believe this places the liberals and moderates at the disadvantage, since conservative leaders have considerable experience at organizing grass-roots activism and building hugely influential movements out of almost nothing. The conservative wing of the Republican Party wants to keep the GOP, but doesnt need it. Their moderate and liberal rivals need the GOP very badly.
Theres also the matter of why the Democratic Party is in decline. Just as with 1992 and 1994 election results, the two factions disagree on this. Conservatives say that liberal views doomed the party, while moderates and liberals blame the left-wing radical interest groups (and liken them to what they call right-wing radical interest groups in the GOP). Whichever is true, the fact remains that the Democratic Party has been identified with liberal views, and the Republican Party with conservative ones. Voters have ceased to support the party that has been identified with liberal views. It is valid to question whether they will support a GOP that comes to be so identified. It is also valid to question whether a more liberal GOP would be able to keep from being taken over by the same radical leftist groups that have so much influence now over the Democratic Party - once the Democratic Party finishes collapsing, what would there be to stop these groups from moving in on the liberal-to-moderate New GOP?
Underlying the whole debate is a fundamental disagreement over what matters to the American people. Conservatives insist that their rising fortunes show that the people want government to operate according to conservative views and values. Liberal and moderate Republicans do not accept the idea that ideology plays a role in voters decisions at the ballot box; they adhere to what has become conventional wisdom in Americas institutions, that people care more about bread-and-butter issues than about abstracts like philosophy and vision.
To an extent, they are both right - but the more materialistic moderates and liberals are, in my opinion, about to become victims of extremely poor timing, as the bread-and-butter issues are increasingly tied in by conservative leaders and thinkers with the philosophical ones, and a better informed electorate gains insights by being exposed to views outside the conventional wisdom. Although the information revolution is well underway, the resultant revolutions in the way ordinary people look at the world they live in, has only just begun.
Until liberal and moderate thinkers come to terms with these realities, and get to work on formulating ways to put their own views in the kinds of terms that conservatives have been doing for decades, they will continue to decline - regardless of the political party label under which they march.