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Can the GOP Find Its Center?

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"The center does not try to read anybody out of the party," the experienced Republican politician declared. "But the farther you go in either direction, the greater the inclination to read others out." He deplored party purges as "political cannibalism" and insisted: "The center must lead."

That was Richard M. Nixon, about a week after Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat at the hands of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Nixon was to succeed in reconstituting a Republican center that propelled him to the presidency four years later. But that center could not hold. As J. William Middendorf II recounts in "A Glorious Disaster," his book on the Goldwater campaign with the pitch-perfect title, the movement led by the conservative Arizona senator, not Nixon, shaped the Republican future.

This fall's election defeat was inglorious for Republicans because it ratified Nixon's original worries about the cost of chasing away the GOP's moderates and revealed that the Barry Goldwater-Ronald Reagan political settlement has expired.

You wouldn't know that listening to Republican congressional leaders who still think all will be well if the party just hugs the old conservative faith a little harder.

Thus did House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio promise "to fight for a smaller, less costly and more accountable federal government." Thus did the great conservative hope, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, promise to steer the Republican Party "back to the principles of limited government, fiscal discipline and traditional moral values."

But such boilerplate will not solve the new problems Republicans confront.

The first is obvious: The party's credibility on national security has been shattered by the failure of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq. Many Republicans know this, which is why President Bush's biggest problem in his last two years will be not the Democratic opposition to the war but the growing ranks of Republican political pragmatists who want to separate themselves from Bush's Middle East venture.

The second is less obvious but no less important: Pro-market libertarians and pro-family social conservatives are more aware than ever that their respective values and interests do not coincide.

In an article in the latest issue of the conservative Weekly Standard, Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, explains the tension between the market and the family as clearly as anyone has:

"The market values risk-taking and creative destruction that can be very bad for family life, and rewards the lowest common cultural denominator in ways that can undermine traditional morality. Traditional values, on the other hand, discourage the spirit of competition and self-interested ambition essential for free markets to work, and their adherents sometimes seek to enforce codes of conduct that constrain individual freedom. The libertarian and the traditionalist are not natural allies."

Levin acknowledges that the policy fixes he proposes (including health-care portability, long-term care insurance and school choice) are "barely a start" to what needs to be done for those in what he calls "the parenting class." Still, he identifies a central conservative problem.

The difficulty, of course, is that a conservatism that cares only about "limited government," "fiscal discipline" and preaching about "traditional moral values" will shy away from Levin's practical, problem-solving approach by government that might involve -- horrors! -- new or different kinds of spending.

That's one reason the decline of the moderate Republicans hurts the party: The moderates were always looking for innovative ways to use government for practical ends. And as an electoral matter, the 2006 vote proved that if Republicans lose too many of their moderate members in areas such as New England, the mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest, they no longer have a majority. Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, said moderates had, to no avail, warned their leadership of "the consequences of pushing a legislative agenda kowtowing to the far right in our party."

The flight from a solution-oriented politics designed to deal with the pressures on working- and middle-class families had the final effect of driving many of the onetime Reagan Democrats, the "security moms" and disaffected men over to the Democrats, who enjoyed strong gains in the large swath of households in the $30,000 to $100,000 annual income range.

The GOP desperately needs to disenthrall itself from old thinking. Some inventive Republican presidential candidate might study the policy playbook of a politician who liked to condemn "the brain-dead politics of both parties." His name was Bill Clinton.

postchat@aol.com


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