After Sauerbrey debacle, GOP must move to center

November 10, 1998|By Ronald W. Dworkin

MARYLAND Republicans are in a post-election funk. Despite a record $6 million in the bank and an incumbent governor disliked by much of his own party, they failed to elect the GOP nominee, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Activists whisper to each other that never again will the stars be so perfectly aligned.

This is wrong -- the day of deliverance will come. But the state GOP must take to heart the lessons it learned from the election -- what the proper role of social conservatism should be within the party, and which groups now outside the GOP should be aggressively courted as allies.

On the national level, social conservatives saw opportunity in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It was the chance they needed to further their agenda on issues like abortion rights. By making Americans feel ashamed to have a baby boomer president with a deeply flawed character, they thought a humbled electorate would reject the culture of limitless freedom that possibly shaped that character. This is why every effort was made to keep President Clinton under the spotlight of humiliation.

It was a logical calculation. The decade of the 1990s, it seemed, was certainly the decade of family values. Even leading Democrats embraced the ideal.

But social conservatives erred in thinking that the concern expressed by parents to undisciplined children and violent TV shows signified an embrace of the entire social conservative agenda. They erred in believing that they were the "silent majority." They are not, and their inflated rhetoric was met with defeat at the polls.

Abortion position

In the Maryland race, Ms. Sauerbrey tried to reassure voters that she would not change state abortion laws. She meant it. But voters lumped her together with national figures in the social conservative movement -- those who pound the lecterns on the nightly talk shows -- and hesitated.

Social conservatives have a permanent home in Maryland's GOP. But they must recognize that they are not the majority, even within their own party. They are only one of many important interest groups. And, for this reason, they must understand that their best offense is defense. Rather than reaching for the reins of the state, they should cut back on their agenda and concentrate on trying to preserve their way of life. Not only will this end fear among the majority, but also it will excite sympathy.

When government tries to adjust the curricula of Christian home schools so that it comports with secular ideas, it is an abuse of state power. When government plays with the nonprofit status of churches and temples to influence the composition of their hierarchies, it is an abuse of state power. When government allows the teen-age daughters of social conservatives to get abortions without informing a parent, it is a violation of family rights and an abuse of state power.

The GOP, in the spirit of tolerance and diversity, should protect social conservatives when the majority secular culture harasses them.

This signifies a moderation of the agenda, but it is not in any way a throwback to liberal Republicanism. Liberal Republicans were often contemptuous of social conservatives. Behind their backs, they called them philistines or crackers.

A new moderate GOP, on the other hand, would value social conservatives and honor their way of life. It would hold them as one example of how a virtuous life can be lived in Maryland. It would protect them without forcing their way of life onto others.

Ms. Sauerbrey had a large gender gap. But simply moderating the GOP position on abortion will not close that gap in the future. In the 1996 Massachusetts Senate race, for example, Republican William Weld favored abortion rights. Yet he lost with a large gender gap.

The problem goes much deeper. Women, especially single mothers of young, are extremely vulnerable. Many such mothers toil in jobs where advancement is hindered by the time they must spend caring for their children. But by not advancing, they remain on the wrong side of the ever-increasing wage gap. The bare necessities of life require them to enter the work force. At the same time, a large portion of their earnings are siphoned off by day care.

To make matters worse, women have lost the intangible protections of a chivalrous culture. Our culture is not kind to women. Gender-neutrality exposes them to countless discourtesies and a ruthless competitiveness.

No poor feminists

Modern feminism does not speak to these ills. The major feminist groups are more concerned with partial-birth abortion and an end to the patriarchal family, not the crisis in public education, flexible work hours and health insurance. This is why many women now refuse to call themselves feminists. Feminism is simply irrelevant to their lives, a play thing for wealthy, liberal women.

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