Battle for a party's soul

William Schneider

December 14, 1990|By William Schneider

THE MODERATES say that the radicals live by "rejection." The radicals call the moderates a bunch of "undertakers." The party's founder contends that the party "committed suicide" in the recent election: "The voters never learned about the good things we were doing because all the media tuned into was the fight."

This particular battle is going on in the German Green Party, which lost half of its votes and all of its seats in the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections. The Greens are now experiencing open warfare between the moderate "realos" and the radical "fundis."

That's not unlike America's Republican Party, which has been experiencing open warfare between its own "realos" and "fundis" ever since the GOP's disappointing showing in last month's midterm elections.

Budget director Richard G. Darman, the leader of the GOP's "realo" wing, has derided conservatives for empty sloganeering that fails to address "the hard choices." In a speech last month, Darman said the conservatives were guilty of "neo-neo-ism," the view that "if an idea is good enough for a few and large enough to label, it is ready to be launched at full scale."

Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, spokesman for the "fundi" wing of the GOP, accused Darman of "technocratic nihilism" and called for the budget director's resignation if he did not recant his views.

The split in the GOP goes a lot deeper than personalities, however. The issue is how the Republican Party can hold on to the critical white middle-class vote. The "realos" believe that what the middle class wants is prosperity and good government. That means deficit reduction. The "fundis" believe that what middle-class voters want is social change and economic protection. That means tax cuts.

Young conservatives in both the White House and Congress have rallied to the cause of a New Paradigm. They call for a new domestic order alongside President Bush's new world order. The idea is to provide innovative solutions to social problems by relying on individual choice rather than bureaucratic programs. The buzzwords are incentives, decentralization, empowerment and the free market.

Republican "fundis" know that though white middle-class voters are fiscally conservative, they also tend to be socially progressive. They want to see something done about problems such as education, drug abuse, environmental degradation and urban decay. "The problem with this White House is they're not for anything," a conservative strategist told the Washington Post. "They define themselves by vetoes."

Middle-class voters believe the government should solve problems. But they don't want to pay higher taxes. Enter the New Paradigm, which says that problems can be solved without taxing and spending. Allow public housing tenants to buy their homes. Let companies trade pollution rights on the open market. Give parents vouchers so they can send their children to any school they want. Provide tax incentives for firms that locate in the inner city.

Each of these measures would provoke what a Republican congressional aide described as "major, major, incredible fights in Congress." Conservatives don't care, however. They feel the president tries too hard to get along with Democrats in Congress, instead of challenging them at every turn. Half the GOP is in despair, Gingrich said, "because the White House is saying that governing means raising taxes and compromising with the Democratic Congress."

Republican "realos" offer the middle class something different: stability. They argue that budget constraints rule out any ambitious new programs. Instead, they hold out the hope that deficit reduction will put the economy back on the road to recovery by 1992. Darman and his allies rally to the cause of this year's budget deal, which, they say, got a deficit reduction program on track for the first time.

The problem is, the budget deal was massively unpopular. It entailed significant tax increases. It was opposed by most Republicans in Congress. And it drove Bush's approval ratings down 20 points. The public hated it, and the party hated it. But Darman and White House chief of staff John H. Sununu, continue to defend it. They are proud of having made "the hard choices." But Gingrich argues, "What we need is not hard choices, it's hard thinking."

The "fundis" are driven by fear of taxes. Don't worry about the deficit, they argue. If the administration cuts taxes and announces a bold new program to solve social problems, the Republicans will have the white middle-class vote locked up.

The "realos" are driven by fear of "fairness." They worry that if the administration proposes new tax cuts, the Democrats will come after them on the fairness issue, saying that Republicans cut taxes for the rich while cutting spending for the poor.

The president already gave a speech in which he endorsed the New Paradigm. The big question is whether he will propose another round of tax cuts in his State of the Union message next month. If he does, the "fundis" will have won. If not, the "realos" will still be on top.

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