There is something quintessentially Republican about calling for spiritual revival at a $500-a-plate dinner. Thus did Ronald Reagan Launch his campaign for the White House.
Republicans have a genius for being unedifying even when they are right -- even though they are usually right. And Reagan is better than most of them. There is certainly nothing wrong with either spiritual revivals or fundraisers, but there is a slight incongruity in combining them. Charles Wilson was basically right when he said that what is good for General Motors is good for the country, but there must be non-suicidal ways of making the equation. Barry Goldwater was right when he said that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, but bravado in stating such a truth is no virtue.
Reagan is that rare Republican who can make an epigram without losing an election. He is principled; he can state his principles incisively; he can bring warmth into the living room or bring a crowd to its feet. He is not the sort of "modern" Republican who leaves you wondering why he isn't a Democrat.
And yet there is more to winning than just convincing the people that four years of you would be better than four years of the other fellow. One problem with recent Republican presidents is that there hasn't been a Republican Party to support them. With Reagan, the danger is especially acute that he will seem a mere triumph of personal packaging, a spearhead without a shaft.
The same day Reagan declared, a largely Republican minority in the House of Representatives managed to block a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. on grounds that it would cost too much. The argument is less than sublime -- we don't ask how much we are shelling out for George Washington -- but it has its force. The real trouble is that a party that is reduced to pointing out bookkeeping defects in the opponent's program, when those opponents are winning hearts with benevolent gestures, can hardly avoid seeming mean-spirited. While the Democrats are pouring out Jack Daniels, the Republicans are forever selling Alka-Seltzer.
Since 1980, like 1968, will be a hangover year, Republican chances for the short term look good. This nation does sometimes elect Republicans, mostly as a way of chastising its Democrats. But a permanent Republican majority is another matter. It is hard to imagine a party exercising long-term power when it can't even supply imaginative day-to-day opposition. At their worst, the Republicans seem to be sectarian without being principled. They allow themselves to be put in the position of voting "No" without seeming to stand for a larger "Yes."
It is one of the ironies of our political history that the party of Lincoln should so utterly have lost the Lincoln touch. I can remember reading about old Southern Negroes, born into slavery, who still voted Republican out of gratiitude to the first Republican president. Though their votes in the Deep South could hardly have made any difference, and though their piety toward Lincoln may have moved them to vote for Nixon, the very ritualism of it all bespoke a kind of civic loyalty that has almost vanished from our public life.
Today the shrewder Republican operators have written off the black vote, on grounds that it goes automatically to the Democrat, be he who he will. Maybe so. And no doubt it would be a fatal compromise for any Republican to promise any group special favors -- especially the divisive favors of affirmative action.
Yet good politicians don't write people off. Lincoln himself was thinking beyond immediate advantages when he reached out, in the face of war, to extend gracious gestures to enemies. The result was everlastingly ennobling to this nation.
So far Reagan has seemed to share the current Republican tendency to ignore people who aren't politically available in the short run. But one of the things he and the Republican Party must do is break the assumption that politics means no more than assembling coalitions by buying votes. Black people, like the rest of us, don't really want to be bought; they want to be noticed, respected, cared about.
If it's spiritual revival he wants, Reagan couldn't do better than to make respectful gestures to groups the Democrats have taken for granted. It might or might not make a difference at the polls. But it would make an important difference to the music of American politics.