Midterm blues -- the not so Grand Old Party

November 15, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

IT MAY BE 25 years old now, but it could have been uttered last week:

"If the Republican Party cannot get some grip on the actual world we live in and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people -- why, somebody else will. There will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find at the back an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."

The words are those of Whittaker Chambers, and the same warning could have been addressed to the Democrats after the Dukakis campaign. Now, after the mid-term elections of '90, it is the Republicans who appear uncertain and adrift, fingering oddments of fantasy.

Various comforters now have told the Grand Old Party that it has nothing to worry about, that we are seeing only the usual off-year shift to the party out of the White House. It could have been worse, they say. Call it victory and relax. Be happy, don't worry.

This is the kind of comfort that is fatal to political parties. It induces first apathy and then decline. If Republicans take such counsel seriously, they can look forward to becoming a permanent minority, maybe even a singularity. Like an old man in a dark shop.

In a dynamic society, parties must be dynamic as well. They cannot afford the kind of comfort that prompts self-satisfaction rather than self-examination. In this season of its content, the Republican Party loosened its grip on the actual world we live in and failed actively to promote a program that meant something to the great majority of people. And the results were just what Whittaker Chambers warned against.

The party's leader has stumbled. George Bush took his biggest fall over the budget, an issue on which he should have had the upper hand. In a clash with Congress, the White House enjoys unity of command, while congressional leaders must wrestle with 535 different personalities. This president also held the political high ground -- a popular pledge not to raise taxes. He threw away both advantages.

By compromising on the budget, Bush endangered not just his credibility but his party's. Its unity, its appeal and its clear definition in the minds of voters began to fade. Americans started to wonder what the Republican Party stood for, if anything. The party that Ronald Reagan had defined suddenly looked murky. Its leader was outmaneuvered on Capitol Hill and outpoliticked on the hustings.

The endless negotiations over the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 didn't help, either. The president finally summoned the strength to veto this vague threat of racial quotas, but not before he had blurred various distinctions.

In both cases, Bush yielded to the successful politician's great temptation: to go beyond overwhelming popularity and achieve unanimity. He set out to create a working relationship with the opposition and to add the civil-rights lobby to his base of support. Result: The opposition remained opposed, and his own party grew confused. The sound of the trumpet was uncertain, and fewer followed.

A great party must dream dreams and see visions. As the midterm elections approached, this one was making deals and shifting its stance for unclear purposes. Naturally its support began to evaporate.

George Bush is not likely to make such a mistake again -- not because he is necessarily a leader of vision but because he's a pragmatist, and his search for universal approval hasn't worked. The election returns say it's time to clarify his party's positions, not muddy them further. Having entered these midterm elections a distinct minority in both houses, the Republicans have succeeded only in fulfilling the biblical prophecy: "To him that hath shall be given. But from him that hath not, even that little which he hath shall be taken away."

The modern mechanics who pull the levers of campaign finance and political polls will explain that it was all a matter of organization. They make the mistake of all those who disregard matters of spirit and symbolism.

To borrow another quote from Whittaker Chambers, as relevant now as when he first uttered it after the Republican setback in the off-year elections of 1958: "The Republicans had lost touch with reality in all directions, and in all groupings, until domestic policy resembled irresolution tempered by expediency . . . "

The Republican Party can wake up, or accept the comforting words of those who say nothing much has changed. It can go on fingering its oddments of fantasy. If it does, then last week's election returns are but a foretaste of those to come.

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