Copyright The Chronicle of Higher Education
Following the 2002 midterm Congressional elections, Democrats were blue about their party’s future. With the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks still uppermost in the American public mind, and with President Bush enjoying record-high job-approval ratings, most voters favored Republican candidates and voiced conservative opinions in polls. Several pundits proclaimed that the GOP was now America’s “permanent majority” at the national level, becoming so at the state level, and even resurrecting itself in some cities where Democrats had long reigned supreme.
Supposedly this political realignment was, if anything, long overdue. Since the early 1970s, public opinion had been trending conservative. By the early 1990s, lower taxes, tougher crime policies, and traditional moral values all consistently polled popular majorities. Southern voters began bolting from the Democratic Party in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Nixon’s law-and-order “Southern strategy” iced the break. In 1980 and again in 1984, Reagan attracted one in four votes cast by Democrats. In 1994 Newt Gingrichled Republicans ended Democrats’ 40 years at the House’s helm.
In 2002 here it supposedly was: the long-predicted shift to Republican Party dominance and conservative ideological hegemony. Two years later, Bush’s bigger-than-expected win over Sen. John F. Kerry ostensibly confirmed that conservative Republicans had become America’s ruling class.
Besides, the 2004 election results supposedly revealed deep culture-war differences concerning religion that sealed the Republicans’ permanent majority status. About two-thirds of people who attended church regularly (weekly or more) voted for Bush. As the analysts John C. Green and Mark Silk have documented, the small plurality of Americans who chose “moral values” as “the one issue that mattered most” to their presidential vote in 2004 Ã³ so-called “moral values” voters Ã³ put Bush safely over the top in the South, the Mountain West, and the Midwest. Millions more evangelical Christians voted in 2004 than had voted in 2000.
But what a difference a year makes. According to the Washington chattering class, Bush and the Republicans’ governing majority are suddenly but surely in decline. Many among the selfsame talking heads who were only recently talking Republican realignment, conservative hegemony, and Bush’s lasting Reagan-like legacy, are now talking conservative crack-up, the lame-duck president’s political meltdown, and the Democrats’ winning back the House in 2006.
All the pundits point to much the same reasons for this apparent reversal in conservative Republicans’ political fortunes: rising popular sentiment against the U.S. occupation of Iraq; news-media spotlights on the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina; prosecutorial probes into alleged misdeeds by high-profile Repub-lican leaders; revolts by conservatives against the president’s second pick for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers; and retreats by the White House on Social Security privatization and several other domestic-policy priorities.
There is only one problem with this latest conventional political wisdom. It is, like the conventional political wisdom that immediately preceded it, almost completely wrong in virtually every respect.
Today’s true big political picture is mostly gray shades against a purple (red mixed with blue) canvas.
Conservative Republicans, beset by deep ideological divisions, are not even close to becoming the country’s permanent ruling class. Neither the post-Reagan Republican Party in general, nor the present Bush White House in particular, ever actually rode so high politically.
Just the same, neither the GOP nor the president is in any definite long-term political trouble. Conservative Republicans, even without permanent-majority clout, are still more potent politically than liberal Democrats, and likely to remain so. Centrist and neoprogressive Democrats could credibly compete for power with conservative Republicans, but they must first pry their party’s presidential nomination process and key leadership posts from the old-left hands that still primarily control them. Despite strenuous efforts to do so since the mid-1980s by various New Democrat groups, the party is still led mainly by its liberals. Not even the New Democrats have ever really reached out to the culturally conservative and anti-abortion Democrats who have been defecting to the Republican Party since the Reagan years.
True, Bush won over two-thirds of regular churchgoers, but Kerry won two-thirds of voters who said they never went to church. Together the “churched” (a sixth) and the “unchurched” (a seventh) constituted less than a third of the total electorate. As the political scientist James Q. Wilson, of UCLA and Pepperdine University, stated in his November Tanner Lecture at Harvard, “religion makes a difference, but very religious and very irreligious voters are only a minority of the electorate.” Amen, and as studies by the Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina have shown, even on most hot-button issues, the electorate is far less polarized than ideological elites on each side would like them to be.
The political pundits are wrong, but your high-school civics teacher was right: Thanks to federalism, separated powers, checks and balances, staggered elections, and myriad other constitutional contrivances, the party in power has to govern by the ABC’s Ã³ forging interparty alliances, striking bargains with officials in other branches and at other levels of government, and effecting compromises that usually induce less loyalty from the winners than enmity from the losers.
Especially when, as today, national political elites are ideologically polarized into partisan camps, unified party government is constitutionally conditioned to be a splendid curse for the party in power. Once that party is “in control” in both Congressional chambers and in the White House, the ABC’s rudely awaken latent intraparty divisions and spark new, high-stakes internal battles over both ideas (who believes what) and interests (who gets what).
Historically the Democrats’ New Deal coalition Ã³ Southern whites, northern blacks, union members, Catholics, Jews, and disparate others Ã³ had pretty much fallen apart by the time Nixon resold himself to America in 1968. But the Republicans’ grand old “Main Street and Wall Street” coalition has always been a true political witch’s brew, bound to bubble and boil over whenever the GOP and its conservative base Ã³ that is, bases, plural Ã³ control both Congressional chambers plus the White House.
In an early October 2005 cover story, “What’s Gone Wrong for America’s Right,” The Economist magazine listed the contemporary GOP’s conservative cleavages: small-government conservitives versus big-government conservatives, conservatives of faith versus conservatives of doubt, insurgent conservatives versus establishment conservatives, business conservatives versus religious conservatives, and neoconservatives versus traditional conservatives.
Exhibit A is the libertarian Cato Institute’s edited volume assessing what Republicans have wrought since taking back the House in 1994 and achieving unified party control under George W. Bush. As the small-government conservatives see it, 10 years after the “Republican revolution,” Bush-led Washington and the Republican Party have backslid into “business as usual.”
Cato’s best-known analyst-activist, Stephen Moore, says it all in his chapter’s subtitle, “The Triumph of Big Government.” In a section headed “Republicans Break the Bank Under President Bush,” Moore notes that nondefense discretionary spending rose 34 percent during Bush’s first term, which is “exactly the opposite of what was promised by Republican leaders when they came to power in the 1990s.” The Bush “spending spree,” as Moore dubs it, started before 9/11 and “is spread across many federal agencies, whether they have a security function or not.” And don’t blame only the Democrats: “Bush has not vetoed a single bill. … If Bush is displeased with big spending in Congress, he has shown no sign of it.”
The libertarians lambaste more than Bush’s budgets. Health-care policy, Michael F. Cannon says, has been the Republican revolution’s “mitigated disaster.” Republicans defeated Clinton’s universal health-insurance plan, but they have yet to rein in federal spending on Medicaid; and in 2003 Bush backed the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act, affording prescription-drug coverage to qualified senior citizens starting in 2006. Bush’s landmark No Child Left Behind law, argues David F. Salisbury, “greatly increased federal education spending and perpetuated funding for most of the old federal education programs, many of which are ineffective and wasteful.” According to Jerry Taylor, “the Republican revolution has left virtually no footprints on the environmental code or on federal land holdings.” On foreign policy and national security, avers Christopher A. Preble, there are now “serious divisions within the party.” Preble charges that both the first and second Presidents Bush, Gingrich, and other Republican revolutionaries have proved unwilling “to part with the military-industrial complex that had expanded during the cold war.” He labels our present national government a “warfare-welfare state.”
In the second chapter, Richard K. Armey, former Republican House majority leader, offers the “Armey Axiom” that “Freedom Works,” advising that “America will prosper and create unlimited opportunity if we have limited government and reward the hard work and initiative of citizens.” Armey’s political advice is simple: “When We Act Like Us, We Win.”
Really? Cato’s president, Edward H. Crane, is Armey’s ideological twin, but he acknowledges that Republicans have won elections while straying far from the small-government gospel. Reagan, complains Crane, won big in 1984 by running on a platform “with no substance” and returned to office with no “mandate for cutting the government.”
“Today,” he writes, the GOP is led intellectually “by neoconservatives and other Republicans who are explicitly pro-big government.”
Why is small-government conservatism so little honored by Republican policy makers even now that they control the Congress and the White House? Even a nonlibertarian like me can be moved by certain libertarian ideas and values (especially each April 15). The simple truth, however, is that most citizens, including most who are registered as Republicans, carp about taxes but, when push comes to shove, wanteven demandmost of what “big government” does and delivers. No national politician can stay in office long or get things done legislatively if he or she always talks or routinely votes the way a committed libertarian should.
To wit: Republicans have won seven of the last 10 presidential elections. Nixon, Ford, Reagan in 1984, and the two Presidents Bush read little from the libertarian liturgy. Only Reagan in 1980 talked a small-government line, and he received just 51 percent of the vote in a three-way race. As Crane notes, in 1980 Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. That promise got big applause before certain conservative audiences, but Reagan never really pushed hard to get rid of those agencies, and they are still very much with us today.
After delivering his 1981 tax cuts, Reagan did not retire his anti-big-government and bureaucracy-bashing rhetoric. During his two terms, however, federal-government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product changed little, military spending skyrocketed, and there were no big reductions in the federal civilian work force (those occurred in the mid-1990s under Clinton). When Reagan left office in 1989, the Federal Register was slimmer, but the federal government’s regulatory reach was, if anything, far greater than it had been in 1980. In 1984 the less libertarian-sounding Reagan won in a landslide (59 percent to 41 percent).
In the mid-1990s, often downbeat and divisive Republican revolutionaries lost what little ground the upbeat and avuncular Reagan had gained for the small-government cause. The public liked the Contract With America, but not its policy fine print. As I predicted in more than a half-dozen lectures I gave in early 1995, once people heard a gavel-wielding Gingrich talk about cutting major social programs, they balked. When Clinton called Gingrich’s bluff about “shutting down” the federal government, the only remaining question was when, not whether, the small-government moment would quickly pass into House history footnotes.
George W. Bush has never hidden his differences with libertarians. His very first campaign speech, on July 22, 1999, articulated what he believed as a “compassionate conservative.” Speaking before inner-city clergymen and women in Indianapolis, “economic growth,” Bush preached, “is not the solution to every problem.” He labeled as “destructive” the idea that government is bad and called explicitly for increasing government support for Medicaid and other federal programs. He also rebutted the notion that government needs only to step aside for families and communities to flourish. In particular he stressed that, when it comes to addressing poverty and urban blight, it “is not enough to call for volunteerism. Without more support Ã³ public and private Ã³ we are asking” local community-serving groups, both religious and secular, “to make bricks with-out straw.”
Bush, like Reagan before him, is a true believer in tax cuts. In 2001 he put tax cuts first on his agenda, and the administration has been quick to court groups with grass-roots networks dedicated to lowering taxes. But the president also proceeded, both before and after 9/11, to try to make good on his pledges of activist domestic government: more federal aid to Title I schools; bipartisan initiatives to expand volunteer-mobilization programs, including Clinton’s AmeriCorps program; fresh federal funding for best-practices programs that benefit at-risk urban youth; and much more. To many libertarian leaders’ dismay, in 2004 Bush ran mainly on Iraq, homeland security, and his record as a compassionate conservative.
Libertarians aside, the GOP’s most interesting but least well-understood intraparty political schism is among its religious conservatives. On the one side are what some political scientists term the party’s religious purists. Essentially the purists want to push for policies that challenge constitutional church-state limits and to nominate as federal judges those whom only an activist opposed to abortion or gay rights could love. On the other side are its religious pragmatists. Essentially the pragmatists want government to be more faith-friendly while remaining pluralistic; and, though they are mostly for restricting abortions and against same-sex marriage, they want traditional family values to be promoted less through pitched battles over federal judgeships and more through bipartisan “fatherhood” or “healthy marriage” initiatives and the like.
If Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson are correct, religious pragmatists in the Republican Party don’t have a prayer. In Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, the two political scientists argue that the GOP is dominated by religious, libertarian, and other conservative ideological extremists who vary only according to their media savvy. The young authors are progressives, but they wage their case as public intellectuals with expert research skills. Like or agree with its thesis or not, their pithy, well-written book is certainly worth reading.
To Hacker and Pierson, the Republican religious base is synonymous with the “Christian right.” They cite a study indicating that in 1994 no fewer than “31 state Republican parties” were “significantly shaped by the Christian right,” led back then by the Christian Coalition. “The story of the Christian right,” they argue, “is the story of many conservative activist groups.” Those groups have graduated from mobilizing conservatives to take over local school boards. Rather, as “conservative activism has shifted toward national politics, it has also focused increasingly on the recruitment and certification of aspirants to elected office.”
The Christian right, as depicted by Hacker and Pierson, is a conservative first cousin to libertarian Republican anti-tax lobbies (for example, the authors give Grover G. Norquist’s influential Americans for Tax Reform ample treatment). The groups “share three key characteristics that increasingly define the organizational base of the GOP: They are radical; they focus on guiding and disciplining Republicans in Congress, not mobilizing large numbers of citizens; and they are effective.” The third chapter, “New Rules for Radicals,” concludes with broad generalizations: “Republicans are running the show in American politics. They are doing so in opposition to the moderate center of public opinion.”
Off Center devotes several pages to “Fissures in the Republican Facade.” Still, Hacker and Pierson arguably underplay the rifts within the party’s conservative base and underestimate the gaps between far-right rhetoric and center-right Republican policies. Some GOP libertarians may be “radical,” but, as the Cato chorus painfully croons, they have hardly proved highly “effective” in getting federal policies to mirror their ideological preferences. Ditto for the so-called Christian right. Reagan repeatedly promised, but did not deliver, strong action to roll back abortion. Bush in 2004 initially embraced a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage; then, shortly before Election Day, he declared that he supported “civil unions.” In 2005 the White House did nothing to follow up on the issue one way or the other, and so it often goes.
In truth, too many leaders and activists in both parties are way “off center.” It takes at least two to do the ideological polarization tango. If Hacker and Pierson ever revise the book’s section on “Increasing Transparency and Accountability” in Congress, I would vote for two proposals only slightly more quixotic than several they have already embraced.
First, cut Capitol Hill staff sizes in half and require that all standing Congressional-committee staff members be nonpartisan civil servants. The most partisan and ideological Republicans Ã³ and Democrats Ã³ in Congress are not the elected members themselves but their respective culture-war-mongering, inside-the-Beltway staff members. Second, cut the number of presidential political appointees in half, following the advice that former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker’s commission on national public service gave over a decade ago.
Given intraparty divides, White House staff members inevitably spend much time anticipating criticisms or soothing disappointments that emanate from this or that group on the right (when Republicans are in charge) or on the left (when Democrats are in office). Frustrating though it may be to a quirky, pro-life, pro-poor, Catholic, New Democrat, academic, political moderate like me, the center is a lonely place to be in Washington, and as things stand, no president, Republican or Democratic, can govern squarely from the center.
If you can’t beat the pundits, join them. Here are four parting predictions: When in political trouble, Bush has a proven presidential knack for binding an intraparty conservative coalition, finding the public center, and occupying it with novel policy ideas and actions that leave Democrats either divided or nonplussed. His 2006 State of the Union Address will begin to reverse his 2005 political slide.
Unified Republican government will continue to split conservatives, but most political media mavens will continue to peddle the usual pat stories about left-right, red-blue partisan warfare and miss the more interesting intraparty stories.
A New Democrat will win the presidency in 2008, but not by much, not with coattails that carry Democrats into majority status in Congress, and not for reasons reflecting any new realities or fundamental shifts in the body politic.
And finally, the pundits will nonetheless dress the next Democratic presidential victory in some silly new conventional wisdom (“New Blue Nation”? “The Bush Backlash”?) that will be widely forgotten, save by academic nerds or curmudgeons like me, before the decade is out.
John J. DiIulio Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, served as first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He is co-author, with Meena Bose, of Classic Ideas and Current Issues in American Government, just published by Houghton Mifflin.