The GOP isn't dead yet

Mona Charen

August 05, 1993|By Mona Charen

IS THE Republican Party dead? A number of recent stories in the press have suggested as much. You know, out of power, divided over social issues, no clear leader, no message -- those sorts of stories.

How much of it is true? Well, this ailing party has elected a U.S. senator from Texas by a 2-to-1 vote. It has also captured the mayoralties of Los Angeles and Jersey City and most recently the lieutenant governorship of none other than Arkansas.

What of the charge that divisions within Republican ranks, say between "mainstream" Republicans and the "religious right," will tear apart the coalition that elected Ronald Reagan twice and George Bush once?

The divisions are real. The snobbery, I can attest from having seen it firsthand, is real. There are some Republicans who disdain religious conservatives as yahoos and polyester wearers. But whether a certain amount of ill feeling translates into a chasm that fatally divides a party is less clear.

Religious conservatives, reputed to be narrow-minded, intolerant spoilers, bent upon their "agenda" at any cost, have demonstrated far more flexibility and political savvy than their detractors. Religious conservatives supported the pro-choice Paul Coverdell against liberal Wyche Fowler in the Georgia Senate race in 1992, and they worked for Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas as well, despite her pro-choice position. Religious conservatives, almost alone among Republican constituencies, remained loyal to the moderate George Bush in 1992.

A political party is not a jury. Unanimity on every point is not required to achieve success. And while relying on Bill Clinton's failures to define it would be a mistake -- "You don't become a saint through other people's sins," says Bill Bennett, quoting Anton Chekhov -- the Republican Party is poised to benefit from the stark object lesson in Democratic leadership the country is currently witnessing.

Spencer Abraham, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Donald Riegle, D-Mich., notes that the 1990 budget deal was struck in October of that year. Its ramifications were thus not felt until after the 1990 elections. This time around, the baleful effects on the economy of a huge tax increase and aggrandizement of government will be obvious by the time the 1994 elections roll around. Moreover, whereas the 1990 deal was bipartisan, this one will be a one-party show. The Democrats will stand or fall on its impact.

There is one problem facing Republicans that is serious -- and his name is Ross Perot. He hogs the spotlight, presenting himself and his chimerical organization United We Stand, America as the principal opposition to the Clinton administration. He's richer than Croesus. And he maintains a level of credibility as an outsider that is difficult for officeholders to match.

Few Republicans doubt that if Mr. Perot continues to be seen as the principal alternative to Bill Clinton, or even if Mr. Perot maintains only his current level of support but runs in 1996, the re-election of Mr. Clinton could be accomplished again by a plurality. And if Mr. Perot chooses to become a Republican candidate, all bets are off.

Republicans are hardly united on how to handle the Perot challenge. Some Republican members of Congress want to embrace him. Some have gone so far as to join United We Stand. But many believe that the only self-respecting (and sensible) course is to denounce Mr. Perot early and often. To do less, argues Bill Bennett, is to be weak. "Now's the time for guts -- the glory will come later."

There's a lot more Huey Long than Will Rogers in Ross Perot, and the sooner Republicans square their shoulders and say so, the better.

But do Republicans have a message of their own? Yes. They've had it for decades, but it is only beginning to resonate with the electorate now that the experience of big government has bred disenchantment. The message is anti-government control and pro-free markets and choice. When that is wedded to cultural conservatism -- standards, sexual continence, civil order -- the message may be sufficient not just to win the White House, but to unseat 44 years of Democratic control of Congress.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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