Financial Times - August 1, 2000
Radical Republicans warm up for Philadelphia Establishing a bunker mentality is vital to fire the tax haters, gun lovers and rabble-rousers who help form GOP policy
[by Amity Shlaes]
George W. Bush has declared that the Republican convention will exemplify the new compassionate conservatism, and Philadelphia's orchestrators are executing the commands to a W. A sweet-but-bland speaker lineup prominently features the handicapped, an Aids sufferer, and a single mom. Disappointed correspondents are reporting that this means that the Republican culture now can scarcely be distinguished from the Democratic one.
But this is not the real Republican culture. For that, one had to attend another gathering, which took place this weekend at a resort on the nearby New Jersey shore. Here some 100 Republican tax haters, gun lovers and freedom-loving rabble-rousers came together to do what Republicans do when no cameras are around: grumble, roar and plot revolt.
To watch the furious congressmen, local activists, think tank authors and donors at their pre-convention pow wow is to come to understand the strange dynamic that sustains the Grand Old Party. Odd as it may seem, Republicans are not at ease in the role of successful party. Compassionate conservatism may be fine for presidential candidates wooing independents, but there is also something about the Republican psyche that needs to feels like an isolated underdog.
The first reason for this is structural. The Democratic party has traditionally gained both votes and significant financial support from America's unions. Its party building is more of an organisational affair. Al Gore's main task this month is to select a vice-presidential candidate who will sit well with the leadership of the AFL-CIO. In contrast, Republicans have no automatic electoral base, and must convince voters anew in every campaign. Nothing works better to achieve this than firebreathing.
But the second reason the Republicans are so pugilistic is that their battles are radical ones. Many of the ideas that have become federal policy in the past decade originated with the GOP - welfare reform, freer trade, lower taxes. Republican efforts pushed what were deemed extreme projects into the mainstream. And the role of radical is such a lonely one that it requires a little rage to stay warm.
So the first order of business at an event like the Republicans' Restoration Weekend is to establish the appropriate bunker mentality. Conference visitors were handed books with titles like Hell to Pay (an attack on Hillary Clinton), Betrayal (an attack on Clinton Administration foreign policy) and The War Room: A Pocket Guide to Victory for Republicans, before they entered the lecture hall.
Next came a heated hour devoted to bashing the media for neglecting, isolating, and generally abusing Republican views. First panellists railed against the New York Times, the Washington Post and other mainstream media for being too liberal. Special castigations were reserved for CNN - dubbed the "Castro News Network".
Such vitriol may be exaggerated. But it stems from a genuine problem: the press in the US does tend to favour Democrats and independents. George W. Bush's visit to Bob Jones University is a good example. Mr Bush faced criticism for appearing there because of the university's ban on interracial dating. Yet scarcely a word has been said in the press about the fact that Mr Gore's team met Al Sharpton, an anti-white demagogue from New York.
In the evening, a standup comic roasted real or imagined Republican foes: Vice-President Gore for his alleged egotistical exaggerations, Mrs Clinton for her Senate ambitions. Even the British National Health Service got a drubbing. Then David Horowitz, the host, handed out awards to two Republicans who had come under attack: Ward Connerly, a black University of California official who banned race-based admission in the face of widespread criticism, and Wayne La Pierre of the much-vilified National Rifle Association.
It tells you all you need to know about the Republican spirit that the award is not named after Abraham Lincoln, or even Ronald Reagan. Instead it is called the Annie E. Taylor Award - Ms Taylor being a widow who exemplified the ideal Republican mixture of desperation and heroism by throwing herself over Niagara Falls in a barrel. (She survived.)
Thus fortified, the attendants dropped their wilder campaigns, and moved on to mull two crucial policy issues: sea-based missile defence, and schools in black and Hispanic neighbourhoods. Here the GOP stands on firm ground. The first Republican campaign for missile defence became so popular that President Clinton copied it with his own version. And the increasingly successful school voucher programmes for poor neighbourhoods have been almost entirely promoted by Republicans, leaving Democrats to play catch-up. This is the constructive side of such weekends: many of the ideas discussed here eventually emerge as Republican policy.
Given the influential nature of the discussions, why the continued firebreathing? The answer is twofold. First, the 1990s were a disheartening time for Republicans - or for those in Congress at least. They hammered away for years at controversial projects like welfare reform, only to see President Clinton take the credit for them. The lack of recognition tends to generate bitterness.
But even more importantly, Republicans need to steel their nerves to take up fresh battles. Until recently, the current Republican campaign for privatisation of the social security pension system was so politically perilous that it was indeed tantamount to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
If curmudgeonly ranting is necessary to energise such courageous drives, then the Republicans ought to be forgiven. Most US citizens - including many who will vote for Mr Gore - are better off for such rightwing radicalism.