Ballot Box

Bland Old Party

PHILADELPHIA–The action, such as it will be, doesn’t begin until this evening. But already the tone of the Republican convention has been established. The GOP is no longer a party of nostalgia (as it was in 1996), a party of intolerance (as in 1992), or a party of fervently held ideas and radical change (as in 1980 and 1994). In place of the kind of ideological zeal that has defined the Republicans for most of the past two decades is a new dispensation: calculated blandness and moderation. 

You find this tone almost everywhere you look inside the First Union Hall. You can read it in the Republican platform, a document of monumental insipidness, almost entirely purged of the anti-government zeal that characterized the 1996 version. You can see it in the dress and demeanor of the delegates, to my eye the most prosperous and least fervent in recent memory. At lunch, I eavesdropped a bit in the “Republican Victory Tent.” The discussion wasn’t about guns or abortion or affirmative action, but rather about how quickly Bush and a Republican Congress would act to abolish the estate tax. And most of all, you can hear the new tone in the speeches delivered from the rostrum, a terraced indoor hillside done up in a subdued, if disagreeable, scheme of ochre and blue. On stage, a succession of Republican congressional candidates got through the morning without so much as a volley of Hillary-bashing–or Bill-bashing, for that matter. Tonight the theme is education, and the lineup–headlined by Laura Bush and Colin Powell–represents just about every minority group in the country except Protestant white men.

The Democratic interpretation is that the inoffensiveness is all for the show. Come Jan. 21, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly, and Charlton Heston will be released from the RNC dungeon where they’re being held and handed the keys to the White House. It is possible that George W. is a clandestine right-wing radical, but I strongly suspect otherwise. Republicans took the same view of Bill Clinton’s centrist positioning in 1992 and 1996, assuming he would govern from the left after being elected from the center. But, in fact, they were entirely wrong. Clinton’s centrism wasn’t a pose or an act. In office, he proved to be a different, more moderate kind of Democratic, who not only governed from the center but also shifted his party’s ideological center of gravity in that direction.

In a similar way, I’d argue, Bush is genuinely striving to reconfigure the Republican Party. As in Clinton’s case, his motivation may be political and pragmatic, but that doesn’t mean that the change isn’t genuine or that it won’t survive his election. As the Democrats did in 1992, the Republicans now feel that they’ve been away from the White House long enough and are willing to do what they must to get back inside. And what’s needed for a Republican victory isn’t a few symbolic concessions and the occasional, forced bow to diversity and tolerance. It’s a repudiation of the anti-government radicalism represented by Newt Gingrich and at least a quiet slide away from the moralism and intolerance represented by religious right.

That doesn’t mean that the Republican Party’s right wing is being liquidated or expelled. Bush doesn’t want the ultras to stay home on Election Day, so at crucial moments the moderate right will continue to appease the far right–as with the choice of Dick Cheney for vice president. But the Bush campaign is trying to use this convention to send as clear a message as it can to the country at large that the wingers do not run the show. The gun nuts, the gay-baiters, the no-choicers might as well be out on Market Street with the protectionist punks and the free-Mumia anarchists for all the attention they’re getting inside the convention hall. The Philadelphia Republicans don’t want anything to do with them. And if the marginalized right-wingers continue to cast their lot with Bush and the GOP, it will be in hope of getting not even a half loaf, but a few crumbs.