CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Politics is a blood sport, and no one practices it better than Jesse Helms. People who think Helms is a home-grown aberration from North Carolina, a sort of noxious political cousin to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, had better think again. Though he's no George C. Wallace and has no aspirations for higher office, Helms represents a large and growing constituency with well-defined religious, social and economic values that extend far beyond the boundaries of the state where he just defeated Harvey Gantt, the Democrat's brightest new hopeful.
Gantt went down to defeat not because he is black. Race hurt him in the end--but remember, it almost elected him, too. He lost because Helms is more in touch with what a majority of voters really want. The vision may not be pretty, but it's the future of American politics. It is a dark, angry vision, but one that might be increasingly in tune with the public mood, if a recession sets in. National Democrats who want to move from the opposition into a majority role need to take note. Otherwise, they'll be counterpunching into the 21st Century.
There are strongly held beliefs guiding Helms' actions. Like most conservatives, Helms' first aim is to limit the power of government. This means curbing all taxes and federal spending outside national security and defense. His only exception is local pork-barrel items such as tobacco-price supports. The racial ingredient in Helms' antipathy toward the federal government stems from forced school desegregation, but the source runs deeper. Helms is proud to be an anti-legislator. Those who wonder how he can be reelected after doing so little to help North Carolina structurally misread the situation. Helms voters prefer that Washington not act.
Second, Helms believes in the sanctity of private property. No one should restrict a person's ownership rights. Helms believes business should be responsible for regulating itself. If a mining company strip mines, if a developer drains wetlands, government should not be allowed to tell them not to. Similarly, home owners should be free to lease to whomever they want. The sole exception here concerns society and sex: For child-bearing purposes, women do not control their own bodies.
Third, Helms believes in individual responsibility. He supports the death penalty because condemned people freely choose their destiny, but the unborn to him are innocent and killing them is murder. Collective bargaining is a tyranny that abrogates the individual's right to enter into contracts. There is no social safety net, no food stamps for welfare mothers, no free milk for poor children in public schools. What parents should provide, government will not.
Fourth--this may come as a surprise--Helms does believe in charity. Stories of his generosity are legion in North Carolina. Years ago he adopted a boy with cerebral palsy. His staff uses the full powers of his office to serve and help individual constituents. A vocal Gantt supporter whose daughter died abroad was amazed when Helms' office helped arrange the official release of the body.
On most of these points most Americans would not disagree with Helms. Certainly not voters who elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George Bush in 1988. The popularity of these positions, minus the stridency with which Helms articulates the lightning-rod exceptions, is why voters in North Carolina reelect him every six years.
The relevant question is why people dislike him so much, and why the Democrats must heed his victory this year.
The first answer is easy: Helms draws hatred on himself. Sometimes, he almost seems to feed on it. Anyone who tries to impose political vision on the world eventually gets a little paranoid. The world is messy and disordered, and the evangelical effort of spinning the Bible into truth inevitably turns at least part of the truth into fiction.
Like all conservatives, Helms' views change with suspicion; unlike most, change puts him perpetually under siege. This pathology is self-induced, but it has consequences for his opponents: If Helms speaks in the name of God, they must be the devil. Lack of tolerance is Helms' greatest weakness. His take-no-prisoners approach gives the impression Helms is personally mean and vicious, that he takes pleasure, cloaked in Christian righteousness, in kicking his opponents when they're down.
Tuesday the devil was a black politician who epitomized ideals of racial reconciliation and equal opportunity in the New South. Gantt and Helms ran hard but clean campaigns through most of the fall. The climate changed when the Charlotte Observer released a poll showing Gantt ahead 49%-41% two weeks before Election Day. It was an accurate reflection of voter sentiment at the time. For the first time, Helms sensed that he might lose.