Monday, July 19, 1999

Week of 07/19/1999

The Big Tent Myth
- by David Matthews 2

When I joined the Republican Party in 1988, I adhered to a lot of the themes Ronald Reagan campaigned for.. cut taxes, balance the budget, strong military defense, getting government off our backs and out of our lives. Simple, easy to understand themes.

Of course, I knew my views weren’t the only views that made up the GOP.. the religious wrong, back then called erroneously "The Moral Majority", also had their views, and they campaigned hard to get those views shoved down the collective throats of America. I didn’t subscribe to their views, and as a matter of fact, I relished those days when they self-destructed as a political force in the late 80’s.

But there was one theme in 1988 that made the GOP so inviting.. the belief that the GOP was a big tent, open to diverse views and opinions, but have some common ground to believe in. It was a unifying theme, one that certainly galvanized enough support in 1988 for Vice President George Bush to trounce on Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and become the next President of the United States.

It was 1988, and I was a Republican.

Four years later, I was a political skeptic in search of a new party.

What happened, you ask? Simple.. the big tent came crashing down.

Let’s get brutally honest here.. both the Democrats and Republicans have their share of purists.. those die-hard members who think moderate viewpoints are an abomination. Usually those members are kept in check with the realization that in order for them to get the political power they so want, they have to bring in those people with more moderate views. So they have to bide their time and bite their tongues and tolerate those moderates that make them sick to their diehard stomachs.

Traditionally, when either one of those two parties gains dominance in government, the purists move quietly, covertly getting their way and making the changes that they want with very little fanfare. Certainly in the Reagan years, this was the case.

But in the past ten years, those same purists in the GOP have been getting more and more impatient. They don’t just want some concessions, they want it all.. and much like the spoiled little girl in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory they want it all NOW!

In the Bush administration, their frustrations were about abortion. The pro-life, anti-abortion activists rallied hard to try to make abortion illegal and to shut down clinics across America. They made sure that the party’s platform was firmly and decisively opposed to abortion, and made it a litmus test for GOP candidates in the 1992 campaigns.

It should also be noted that the Bush years also saw a great period of political disillusionment. The economic bubble burst. Banking institutions such as the Savings and Loans were going bankrupt at an alarming rate. President Bush’s promise of no new taxes was equally bankrupt. More than three-fourths of the members of the US House of Representatives squirmed when it was revealed they had bounced more checks than the Chicago Bulls bounce basketballs. People were upset at the status quo, and while most didn’t act on their impulse to vote the bums out, certainly it gave a warning to the powers that be that the status quo wasn’t as secure as they thought.

Following the 1994 elections, when the GOP won control in both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years, those same purists hoped they would finally be able to get the control they have for so long desired. Certainly the conservatives saw the two years previous of almost unrestrained liberalism by the Clinton Administration to be too much for them to take. So when, in what can only be the most anemic voter turnout since the 1920’s, their supporters swept the ballot box, no doubt the conservatives were on a quick power trip.

Certainly the 1996 campaigns were some indications of the growing restlessness of diehard conservatives against the rest of the GOP. The more moderate candidates for president were quickly forced off, leaving only two - somewhat conservative Senator Bob Dole, and arch-conservative Pat Buchanan. Conservatives, and especially theocrats like the members of the Christian Coalition, were eager to make sure that the GOP platform reflected their beliefs more than at any other time. Following the GOP convention, even Bob Dole started using zero-sum arguments to try to secure GOP support and make sure that support was solidly conservative.

Gone was the idea of inclusiveness. Gone was the idea of moderate voices. Gone was the idea of tolerance of varying viewpoints.

Gone was the myth of the big political tent.

So here comes the 2000 campaigns… and even though the primaries haven’t even started yet, one candidate has already come out in the lead in poll after bloody poll: Texas governor George W. Bush.

This has riled other more conservative candidates, such as Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and theocrat Gary Bauer (who looks amazingly like Hitler without a mustache). But one candidate has taken his disgust even further. Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire has gone so far as to not only express his outrage at the unofficial GOP support of Bush that he has officially resigned from the Republican Party and vows to continue the campaign either as an independent or as a third-party candidate.

Now folks, the conservatives have threatened to do this for years. When it looks like things won’t go their way, they throw temper tantrums like the spoiled brats they are and threaten to go form their own party. In the past, the GOP hierarchy have made concessions to show their loyalty, but this time the conservatives didn’t even wait for those concessions before the rotund senator blasted his colleagues and stomped out of the party.

While conservative commentators like Tony Snow are quick to scoff at the Smith decision as simply a political temper tantrum, there is a real growing dissention in the ranks of the die-hard conservatives. Just days before Senator Smith announced his departure, several conservatives in the state of Arkansas announced that they were disappointed at the GOP hierarchy and formed their own political party called the Southern Party.

As a political skeptic, I would speculate that Smith’s decision to leave the party was more than just a tantrum, but rather as a political sacrifice to show the Republican members of Congress that conservatives really are serious about leaving the party. After all, the forces behind the GOP aren’t above forcing one of their own to fall on their sword. Just look at former congressman Bob Livingston for proof.

Senator Bob Smith was far from being considered a front-runner for the GOP nomination. He looks like an amalgamation between Tip O’Neil and Newt Gingrich. His greatest asset has not been for looks, but rather for his political clout as a solid conservative. Like many of his brethren, Smith works best behind closed doors.

And the key thing to remember is that his decision to leave the GOP doesn’t change a thing for him. He’s still a US Senator. Even if he decides to abandon his dreams for the White House, he’ll still have his day job. Whether or not he’ll keep his job come re-election time is another story, since Smith is now cut off of the lucrative campaign dollars that the GOP can wield.

Smith’s decision can also signal the slow bleeding of the GOP by the most stringent of conservatives to another party, whether it is for the newly-formed Southern Party, or for another political party that would welcome them. Much like the Whig Party was bled to death by the GOP, so too would the GOP be gravely wounded by the departure of their own most loyal members.

As a former Republican now Libertarian, I would relish such an abandonment. Conservatives have for so long been bashing third parties like the Libertarians, and using Rube Goldberg rules to limit their public exposure. Now the most disgruntled of them would have to face those same limitations. They would find out what it means to be on the other end of the bully stick.

What GOP leaders fail to comprehend is that to get the kind of support they loved in the Reagan years, they have to have to have a more open political platform. Simple themes like cutting taxes and less government are effective, especially given the "government can solve any problem" attitudes of Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

The only way the GOP can survive as an effective political party will be to once again put up the big tent.

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