Food for the crocodile

June 14, 1995|By Russell Baker

THE MODERATE Republicans have had it. Moderation is out -- out, out, out -- in the new Republican Party. Radicalism is in.

The moderates came to power in the Age of Eisenhower, flourished under Richard Nixon and stopped Ronald Reagan from being the worst of all possible Reagans. The radicals have detested them for years.

Now the radicals have the power to do something about it. This is why we see the moderates waiting politely to be fed to the crocodile. Politeness, yes -- politeness is so, so moderate Republican. Like gentlemen and ladies, Republican moderates remain polite even as they wait to be disposed of.

There is a touch of old-fashioned class to it of course -- the condemned man at the wall refusing the blindfold. Class is not only old-fashioned, but it is also ridiculous in our age of slash-and-burn, poison-the-well, kill-the-cattle politics.

The radicals, whose mass embodiment is Newt ("The Colossus") Gingrich, are not terribly polite. Mr. Gingrich's own style tends toward the outrageous accusation and the arrogant jeer. New Republican senators from the Gingrich mold are openly and sassily rude in saying it is time to take power from such veteran committee lions as Mark Hatfield, John Chafee and Bob Packwood.

Even Bob Dole is in on a pass. A leader under constant suspicion, he must keep striking poses in order to pacify the radicals. They are uneasy about his long history of getting along by going along with so many past presidents, most of whom are odious to the radicals.

Thus Mr. Dole not only had to campaign to help the radical Oliver North's run for the Senate in Virginia, but he also had to contribute money to Mr. North's already grotesquely over-financed campaign. Also, he had to break with Virginia's senior Republican Senator, John Warner, who had pronounced Mr. North unfit to represent Virginia in the Senate.

Mr. North was defeated, but Mr. Dole paid his dues to the radicals. Senator Warner, now dangerously identified as a moderate, is already targeted for radical attack if he runs again.

Political analysts have been calling the radicals "populists," which gets it all wrong. The populist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a rebellion of dead-broke rural interests against Eastern money power.

Today's Republican radicals may dislike the East, but it is not the moneyed classes they oppose. When they talk of tax breaks for the middle class, they're talking about a family with an income of $200,000 per year. Most of the money breaks Mr. Gingrich's troops have in the pipeline at present favor upscale folk.

Regionalism figures in the radicals' dislike of the moderates. Radical Republicanism is rooted in the West and in a South where a long, delicate Republican flirtation with racist politics has given the party a solid new regional homeland.

In moving south and west, a once conservative Republicanism has acquired some new-fangled, unconservative characteristics. In the old days, for instance, the East was the home office of internationalist, hard-money Republican moderates.

Now hard money and internationalism are pretty much gone. The radicals tend to be isolationist. Though they talk a lot about balancing the budget, the fact is that despite running up the father and mother of all deficits under Ronald Reagan, they still flirt with pipe dreams of raising revenue by cutting taxes. Is this a soft-money policy, or what?

The Republican moderates apparently have no spirit left to fight for a place in the party. No one -- certainly not Mr. Dole -- seems disposed to challenge Mr. Gingrich's idea of what the Republican future must be.

Afflicted with a national convention that gives all power to radicals of the right, the party seems likely to become increasingly hostile to old-fashioned conservatives who grew up on the Saturday Evening Post and the mellow orotundities of Everett McKinley Dirksen.

The radicals, who have long wanted the modern age undone, believed Mr. Reagan would undo it if only the dead hand of moderation could be got out of the White House. "Let Reagan be Reagan," was their cry. Their dream was of Genghis Khan with a California tan.

It was unfulfilled. Now, with moderates going to the crocodile, a glorious return to 1928 seems possible at last.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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