Strange Bedfellow

The Conservative Collapse

No ideas. No leaders. How did the Republican Party reach this point so quickly?

By Jacob Weisberg

Every year, just before the president’s State of the Union address, the White House Press Office invites political reporters in for a spin session. In keeping with the current mood in Washington, the message this time–conveyed by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Budget Director Franklin Raines, and Domestic Policy Adviser Bruce Reed–was about bipartisanship and cooperation. But after about an hour of anodyne sentiments, Rahm Emanuel, a Clinton political adviser more pugnacious than the others, couldn’t take it any more. “About a year ago there was a debate about whether there would be a Department of Education,” he said, jumping up from his chair. “We have covered a lot of ground here. When everyone makes the point that the president is somewhat conceding the agenda, the fact is … [the Republicans] have conceded the president’s priorities. In fact, it is his initiatives that are the center of agreement.”

It is amazing how much has changed in 12 months. The chief theme in analyses of the president’s State of the Union address a year ago was that Clinton was trying to catch a ride on the unstoppable conservative freight train. But history appears to have changed directions again. From the comfortable perch of a 62 percent approval rating, the highest of his presidency, Clinton spent most of his speech Tuesday night proposing a variety of new government programs. These were not merely small-bore, Dick Morris-era programs. Many were substantial and costly efforts in the areas of education and health-care reform. And now, it’s the Republicans who are scrambling to get on board.

Emanuel and other gloating Clintonites contend that the president brought about this transformation by reclaiming the “vital center.” Clinton did indeed move deftly and systematically to deny Republicans all their familiar means of portraying Democrats as being incorrigibly leftist and outside the mainstream. By pushing a harsh anti-crime bill, proposing his own version of a balanced budget, and signing a welfare reform package very different from his own original notion, Clinton deprived Republicans of what they expected to be their three best issues. After the president got done repositioning, Bob Dole had very little left to run on.

But Clinton’s co-option is not the whole story. Conservatism has collapsed. It has been a cliché since the early 1980s that the GOP is the party of ideas. But today, as Clinton generates–with seeming ease–popular and plausible proposals, like expanding college opportunity and extending health insurance to uncovered children, Republicans are openly admitting that their party has no clue what it is in favor of. “It is clear that the faithful are paralyzed by ennui and the party is floundering,” writes William J. Bennett in the most recent issue of the Weekly Standard. “What is missing is a focused, appealing, and philosophically coherent national agenda.” One would expect Bennett, after making such a statement, to propose such an agenda. But the former drug czar’s notion of what the GOP platform should say resembles nothing so much as Clinton’s farrago of demitasse ideas from a year ago. Bennett suggests focusing on such “targets of opportunity” as missile defense and opposition to racial set-asides and partial-birth abortion. These are poll-driven wedge issues, which are likely to have little effect on the lives of most people, and which surely don’t constitute a philosophical program.

It was only two years ago that Republicans had enough consistent doctrine for Thomas Aquinas. What happened? Essentially, conservatives had an unpleasant encounter with reality. They took a few steps in the direction of a coherent philosophical program and came back looking like the English Patient. Somehow, Newt Gingrich managed to unite all the members of his party for a dramatic attack on the role of government. This attack was never as broad as it was made out to be in Republican rhetoric, but even so, it scared the hell out of the country. An entire party, and not just a faction within it, was threatening to violate the national consensus on government’s role. Moderate Republicans, who barely held onto their seats in 1996, will not sign on again any time soon for an attack on programs that are popular with the middle class. Nor are they ready to mount an assault on environmental and consumer regulations.

So if attacking government is out, what else can Republicans do? Bennett, Ralph Reed, and others would have them embrace social and cultural issues. But this plan is even less promising than renewed attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency. Moderate Republicans and conservative libertarians were able to find points of agreement with more authoritarian conservatives on issues like cutting taxes, curtailing welfare, and balancing the budget. But there’s less room for compromise on the broader agenda of social conservatives, which includes issues like school prayer and abortion. With a slender majority, divided Republicans can’t easily move in any direction. Their only alternative is to cooperate with Clinton on issues of national consensus, which might persuade voters they are worthy of continuing to share power with him.

While they play along, Republicans fantasize about a Democratic scandal huge enough to overturn the existing political dynamic. Hoping for a deus ex machina is also not a program, let alone a philosophy.

Republicans not only lack ideas–they also lack leaders. Even if Gingrich gets back to the point where his colleagues will allow him to be seen in public (he actually appeared to be leaning outside the picture frame behind Clinton during the State of the Union), it’s hard to imagine him leading a movement again. And despite the speaker’s many failings, there is no one else with imagination or energy waiting in the GOP wings. The designated respondent to the president, Rep. J.C. Watts, provided some novelty value for an evening. But though pleasant and a polished speaker, he’s an intellectual lightweight–and he’s certainly not a potential party leader.

Who else do the Republicans have? It is amusing to watch the “strange new respect” phenomenon engulf Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott as journalists wake up to the fact that he is not the conservative ideologue he appears. There’s no telling how far the liberalizing of Lott might go with enough positive reinforcement. His most recent gambit–criticizing the president for proposing excessive cuts in Medicare managed-care fees–was an attempt to outflank Clinton on the left. It’s clear that Lott is not the fellow to address the GOP’s problem of intellectual bankruptcy.

For Clinton, the challenge of dominance is to act more responsibly and less politically. The president is in a strong enough position now to take his own rhetoric on reforming entitlements (which he added to his address at the last minute) seriously, and to drop leftover junk ideas from the campaign like the Victims Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The voters chose Clinton as a second-term president. Now it’s time for him to start acting like one.