Conservatives' odd alliance breaks apart

November 13, 2006|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- The alliance between theocrats and libertarians, between Alabama conservatives and Arizona conservatives, was always uneasy and unreliable, supported only by a mutual disdain for taxes. Since they hold opposing views of the role government should play in private lives, their ill-advised marriage was bound to break apart.

And so it did on Tuesday.

The Deep South, steeped in fundamentalist Christianity, stayed fiercely loyal to the Republicans who spurn embryonic stem cell research and support public displays of the Ten Commandments. But in border states and precincts out West, moderates and conservatives broke with Republicans to give Democrats not only the House and Senate but also several governorships. Next year, there will be 28 Democratic governors; they will outnumber their GOP counterparts for the first time since 1994.

The wonder is that this unnatural partnership between mind-your-own-business conservatives and busybody fundamentalists lasted as long as it did. The Western strain of conservatism is skeptical of government intrusion; Goldwater Republicans want government out of their back pockets and way out of their bedrooms. On Tuesday, Arizona voters defeated a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

But the Southern Republicans who rose to power over the past 15 years championed a strangely bipolar conservatism: They wanted no part of a government that would improve economic conditions through policies that increased the minimum wage or made health care more affordable, but they were champions of an overreaching authority handing out rules about worship, courtship, marriage and procreation.

Worse still, in the eyes of fiscal conservatives, they increased government spending. Economists point out that President Bush has been more of a spendthrift than even Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat whom conservatives like to use as their poster child for fiscal profligacy. Mr. Bush didn't increase just defense spending; he also backed big-government programs such as the drug benefit for Medicare recipients.

Most Americans didn't hold with the ultraconservative social agenda laid out by the Bible-thumpers. No matter their religious views, most voters recoiled from the public spectacle that leading GOP politicians made of Terri Schiavo's private tragedy. Abandoning his medical training, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist diagnosed Ms. Schiavo from a video he'd seen, saying she was not beyond improvement. A later autopsy showed he was completely wrong.

Then there was President Bush's veto of a bill that would have authorized federal funds for a broadened program of embryonic stem cell research, which experts say holds hope for cures for such diseases as Parkinson's and diabetes. The president says he wielded his veto pen for the first time because he couldn't compromise on "principle." He didn't say what principle was served by a ban on the use of excess embryos, left over from fertility treatments, that will eventually be destroyed anyway.

Had it not been for the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, this odd partnership of theocrats and libertarians would have collapsed long ago. But Republicans scared voters into supporting their "war on terror," portraying Democrats as wusses and whiners too weak to stand up to a grave threat. The GOP even managed to overcome libertarians' natural suspicion of such wartime excesses as the Patriot Act.

After Mr. Bush's image as a strong and competent commander in chief collapsed, many Goldwater conservatives could no longer find any reason to support him or his party. They walked away, proving once again that the "values" most voters support are competence, integrity and pragmatism.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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