A battle for the GOP's soul

June 10, 1994|By Mark J. Rozell

THE battle for the Republican Party's heart and soul that began with Pat Robertson's presidential candidacy in 1988 and escalated at the 1992 Houston convention has reached a decisive point.

The firefights continue, but it's becoming clear that the far-right zealots are on the way to winning the war.

That's the message that Virginians from the party of Lincoln sent forth when they picked Ollie North as their nominee for the U.S. Senate in the November elections.

The nomination of the central figure in the Iran-contra scandal was directed by Mr. Robertson and his Christian Coalition, which have also wrested control of the GOP at the local level in several other states, particularly Texas and Minnesota.

Mr. North's selection came at the expense of Jim Miller, a former budget director in Ronald Reagan's White House and an avowed ideological conservative. Even the unprecedented intervention of Mr. Reagan, a hero of near-mythic proportions to the right-wing faithful, through a letter disassociating himself from Mr. North could not stop the ultra-right juggernaut.

Republican aspirants for the party's 1996 presidential nomination appear to have read the writing on the wall. Dick Cheney, defense secretary in the George Bush administration and considered a moderate, has aligned himself with the Robertson agenda as he seeks an early boost in what is expected to be a crowded GOP field for the '96 race.

Mr. Cheney delivered the keynote address at the Virginia convention in which he shamelessly pandered to the ideologues. Just days earlier, he had appeared at another function with Mr. Robertson in suburban Cobb County in Georgia.

The danger for the Republicans now is that the party, which had hopes of one day garnering majority status, will split much as the Democratic Party did in the 1960s and 1970s when "movement" ideologues, albeit from the left, dominated its candidate-selection process.

Republican leaders who gleefully exploited the Democratic Party's disunity in the days when moderate Democrats broke ranks by emphasizing that "we didn't leave the party; it left us" now have nightmares of a similar break in their own party.

Many Virginia Republicans have made it clear that they will not support Mr. North in November as a matter of conscience. They believe in the principle of the GOP as an open, inclusive party tolerant of different viewpoints.

Virginia's senior senator, John Warner, who is a moderate Republican, has already announced that he would back the independent candidacy of former state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman in November.

In fact, it now increasingly appears that Mr. Warner himself will either leave the GOP and seek re-election as an independent in 1996 -- or be booted from the party long before then.

Much like Senator Warner, the moderates and long-term conservatives who once dominated GOP state organizations will not long work within a party that insists on being identified with the interests of those with narrow, ideological and religious agendas.

And they will be ripe pickings for a Democrat or an independent candidate in November who can appeal to their interests.

The demands for ideological purity do not help candidates win general elections in America. That was the lesson the Democrats learned back when they were losing all those presidential races. It's one that leaders of the Republican Party hope their own members will realize come November.

If, however, Mr. North wins, the increasingly slim hopes of GOP moderates in preventing the party from falling into the hands of Pat Robertson -- and other "movement" ideologues such as Pat Buchanan -- will truly vanish.

Mark J. Rozell is associate professor of political science at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. He wrote this essay for the Atlanta Constitution.

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