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E.J. Dionne Jr.

GOP Values -- and Those Twins

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page A25

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. -- You've probably seen those sexy twins in the Coors beer ads. Alluring women selling products is a way of life in our country. We are about to learn if the mogul who ran those ads can successfully cast himself as a friend of conservative family values.

This week voters in Colorado set up one of this year's great U.S. Senate contests. Republicans nominated Pete Coors, the beer mogul, after a bitter primary that pitted him against Bob Schaffer, a staunch social conservative and former member of Congress. Democrats picked Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, a moderate who soundly defeated Mike Miles, a school administrator and a liberal.

Peter Coors. (Louis Lanzano -- Bloomberg News)

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Tuesday's primary results were a sign of how partisan and practical primary voters have become. Just as Democrats in the presidential primaries opted for John Kerry because they thought he would be the strongest candidate against George W. Bush, so did voters here pick the two Senate candidates seen as most likely to win for their party in November. Conservative hearts were with Schaffer. Liberal hearts were with Miles, who ran an admirable Howard Dean-style grass-roots campaign. But Coors and Salazar looked like winners.

"From both parties, there was a huge focus on electability," Chris Gates, the Colorado Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview. "People are being very pragmatic."

But the campaigns that led to this result were not a matched pair. The Republican battle was far more brutal, and that's not surprising. The Coors-Schaffer primary went to the heart of the core contradiction in American conservatism.

Conservatism is a noble tradition and an intellectual mess. Conservatives say they revere both traditional and market values. But those two sets of values so often contradict each other that conservatives have to cover their eyes -- from the twins ads, for example -- if they are to pretend to be consistent.

What is the most powerful force for permissiveness in the United States? It is not liberalism. It is the free market's use of sexuality to sell products. Children in our country are exposed to many more sexual images in television ads -- especially those selling beer -- than in raunchy magazines sold under the counter. The beer ads run heavily during sports broadcasts watched by sports-minded kids who love healthy competition, achievement, discipline and victory. Rather "conservative" values, no?

By running for the U.S. Senate, Coors put himself in the cross hairs of the conservative contradiction. He had to try to be as conservative as he could to win a Republican primary, even as his own company was anything but conservative on the social issues. Hey, he had to sell beer.

Thus was Coors faced with sharp attacks from Schaffer, and even more from an independent ad campaign organized by former senator Bill Armstrong. A staunch conservative, Armstrong attacked Coors for running "brewery ads that are degrading to women and nearly pornographic."

Coors was challenged for favoring a lowering of the drinking age. Yes, conservatives are supposed to favor abstemious behavior. But, hey, Coors had to sell beer.

The Coors company, because of the family's conservative politics, came under attack some years ago for being anti-gay. Gays, like most Americans, are serious beer consumers. The anti-gay image didn't help sell beer. Thus did Pete Coors lead his company, admirably, into gay-friendly policies. Thus did Armstrong attack Coors for favoring "the homosexual agenda."

Yes, it's tough having to sell beer and win votes from conservatives. At one point in the primary campaign, Coors said his brewery would change its health care plan so that it would no longer cover abortions. But, hey, Coors had to win a primary and he couldn't alienate right-to-lifers.

The strategy worked this week, setting up a great test of conservative consistency -- and conservative hypocrisy.

Do conservative politicians who care primarily about taxes and the interests of big business merely use "conservative values" as a slogan for attracting votes from the less well-off who gain little or nothing from their economic programs? Are conservatives perfectly happy to condemn liberals for being "permissive" but unwilling (especially after a primary) to say a critical word about their business allies when they use sex to sell products and increase profits? If Bill Armstrong thought Pete Coors's values were so defective before Tuesday, why should he think they are fine now that Coors is the Republican candidate?

What do conservatives really care about -- their values or their incomes? The Colorado Senate race gives them an excellent opportunity to show what matters most.


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