What Should the Republican Party Stand For?

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March 18 1999 10:30 PM

What Should the Republican Party Stand For?

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God's Law? The American electorate doesn't want to hear about God's Law--certainly not from politicians. Clinton was in real jeopardy over the Lewinsky scandal until the issue was polarized, as the God's Law Group confronted everyone else. Of course, quite a number of anti-impeachers no doubt thought of themselves as godly, which explains why Clinton--and the Democrats, as measured by the 1998 midterm elections--emerged triumphant.

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Even Republicans don't want to hear from Him through vote-seeking prophets. Look at what happened to the Rev. Pat Robertson, who ran as the God's Law Guy in the 1988 Republican primaries. He came in a surprise second in the intensity-driven Iowa caucuses that year, behind Bob Dole, but ahead of my then -boss, George H.W. Bush. (So be careful out there, George W.!) But then Robertson came in fifth in the New Hampshire primary--his Armageddon came three weeks later, in South Carolina, the belly-button of the Bible Belt. In a state of 3 million souls, Robertson garnered just 37,261 votes, a mere 19 percent of the GOP primary vote. As for Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and the Christian Coalition, outside of the South, their combined efforts have surely helped Democrats far more than Republicans. And even in Dixie, as I noted earlier, in 1998 an anti-Religious Right backlash was evident, as witnessed by the defeat of Religious Right faves in Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

But wait, Terry might say. That's just Baptists. What about all those Catholics in the North? Aren't they yearning to vote Republican in response to a strong God's Law message? No doubt about it: The pro-Republican shift of many Catholics in the '70s and early '80s was based in part on the abortion issue, although there were other factors as well, including crime, affirmative action, and school busing. In Iowa, for example, Republicans picked up two Senate seats in '78 and '80, as the old Democratic base in the Hawkeye State, the heavily German Catholic areas along the Mississippi River, embraced the new-right/right-to-life cause. But the GOP lost one of those seats back in '84, to a strongly pro-choice Democrat, Tom Harkin, who's been re-elected twice since. And in the heavily Catholic states in the East, Democrats have regained momentum: Of the 10 Senate seats in the five-state stretch from Massachusetts to New Jersey, pro-choice Democrats control nine. (The 10th seat is held by a pro-choice Republican.)

Finally, in California, pro-life conservatives, who despised pro-choice GOP Gov. Pete Wilson throughout his two terms in Sacramento, finally last November got to nominate one of their own, Dan Lungren. Only one catch: The Golden State electorate replaced Wilson, not with Lungren but with another a pro-choicer, Democrat Gray Davis. Indeed, the election wasn't even close: Davis walloped Lungren by 20 points last November.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Wednesday asked Americans to rank the issues--economic, social, foreign--in order of importance. Economics ranked first, crime ranked second, foreign policy ranked third; seventh on the list was "encouraging high moral standards and values." People have learned that God's Law is a perfectly fine form of government--until two folks interpret Divine Will differently. At that point, secularism and small-d democratic politics are the best bulwarks against European-style Kulturkampf.

Sorry, Terry, but the American people--even most Republicans--don't yearn for the good old days of the Thirty Years' War.

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