What Newt Gingrich has done to the Republican Party, and for American politics generally, is sensational enough to be called revolutionary. He has made the Republican Party a truly national party, rejecting the conventional wisdom that "all politics is local." This conventional wisdom served the Democratic party well. Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt it has made itself into a national party while piously proclaiming that "all politics is local." What this meant in practice was that the Democrats proposed a national agenda -- a larger and ever more inclusive and generous welfare state -- that permitted its candidates to "bring home the bacon" at the local level. Meanwhile, the Republican Party resisted all efforts to convert itself into a national party because it feared that a national agenda might commit it to something called an "ideology." Its preferred constituents in the business community, hard-headed and practical men, distrusted all ideologies -- even while they capitulated, in ever-increasing numbers, to the Democratic agenda and its ideology, such capitulation seeming to be the hard-headed and practical thing to do.
When Newt Gingrich proposed his "Contract With America," most commentators, and a great many Republicans, were skeptical about it. It is noteworthy that Republican senators, all beneficiaries of the traditional Republican strategy, did not rush to endorse. Even today, most Republicans in the Senate are less than enthusiastic about it. But it has turned out to be a stroke of genius. What it did was to infuse the Republican Party with a new quantum of political energy derived from a working ideology, now called an "agenda." And in doing so, it ratified the 1994 congressional elections as having been what political scientists call a "critical election," one that changes -- indeed reverses -- the relation of political parties to the American electorate.
Gingrich, appreciating -- even, in some sense, foreseeing -- the import of this election, seized the moment. That is true leadership. The American people now have a Republican Party that is future-oriented, rather than "conservative" in the older stick-in-the-mud meaning of the term. One need not take too seriously Newt Gingrich's "futuristic" speculations to appreciate the importance of this change. From having been the party of resistance to the liberal agenda, the Republican Party is now preparing to be the governing party with its own agenda. And in a modern democracy, integrated into a dynamic world economy, with a high degree of individual liberty and individual mobility, any successful conservative party has to be (a) future-oriented in its economic and social agenda while (b) retaining powerful links to traditional moral and cultural values.
There are some who see a contradiction here, which gives rise to misleading chatter about the necessary tensions between "economic conservatives" and "social conservatives." Such tensions do exist, in individual cases, but there is nothing necessary about them. For most of American history, the American people were quite comfortable with this dualism and saw nothing odd about it. It wasn't until the post-World War II period, which witnessed the rise of the "counterculture" and its "sexual revolution," that a tension was created. It was not experienced by the liberalism of the Democratic Party, which has deftly wedded its economic statism to individual license in the moral and cultural spheres. The Republican Party now has a counter-reformation on its agenda, which weds a recapturing of our economic liberties to individual liberty properly understood -- that is, as something distinct from individual licentiousness. Only those with no knowledge of history can think that this is a mission impossible.
This is not an agenda that the Republican Party is trying to impose on the American people. The American people got there first. Fred Steeper of Market Strategies has pointed out, in a brilliant analysis of the 1994 election in his January newsletter, that in the 1992 congressional elections the Republicans actually gained House seats even while losing the White House -- a most unusual event. The notion, so popular in the media, that the emphasis in the 1992 Republican convention on "conservative values" was a political disaster, is a myth. George Bush lost the 1994 election on his economic performance -- especially his having raised taxes after promising to cut them -- not on his commitment to conservative views on moral and social issues, views which in his case were more moderate than conservative.
Steeper also discovered the roots of the recent Republican electoral victories. These had nothing to do with "white male rage" or some kind of infantile, hysterical panic on the part of the voters. It resulted from the fact that, for the first time in many a year, Americans who designate themselves as "conservative" actually voted Republican. Previously, some 60 percent did so; the other 40 percent voted Democratic out of habit or local loyalties. In 1994 this number voting Republican rose to a startling 80 percent, and there is little doubt that most of this huge, new increment was moved by a concern for social-moral issues. Much of their expressed concern about government spending arose from a perception of how this spending defined and inflamed those social-moral issues.
The conventional wisdom to the effect that the Republican Party will now have to move to the "center" if it is to retain its majority has it all wrong. What it fails to recognize is that 1994 was an ideological election. What the party must do now is to recognize that it is the center and govern appropriately. If it does so, a large section of the self-designated "moderate" opinion, which always tends to move with the political tide, will help create a lasting Republican majority.
Newt Gingrich intuitively understood this many months before Steeper wrote his analysis. Having been the leader of this political upheaval, he now faces the task of presiding over and consolidating his victory. That, of course, is always the harder job. And that is why the presidential election of 1996 is so important. It does not so much matter who the Republican candidate is as whether he will be willing to ratify the popular mandate the party has been awarded. The writer is editor of the Public Interest.