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The Nation : GOP Stands Ready to Capitalize on Nation's Growing Conservative Mood

October 09, 1994|James A. Baker III | James A. Baker III was secretary of state from 1989-1992

WASHINGTON — Just over a month from now, if the opinion polls are right, Election Day could be a banner day for the Republican Party around the country--especially in federal races. The GOP is in a good position to recapture the Senate, where it is only seven seats shy of a majority. Even in the House, a bastion of Democratic control for four decades, the GOP has an outside shot at picking up the 40 seats needed to elect Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) the first GOP Speaker since Joseph W. Martin Jr. in 1954.

This is true not just in the Congress but also at the state and local levels. Indeed, the big four states of California, Texas, New York, and Florida may all have Republican governors next year.

Most important, the November elections provide Republicans an opportunity to begin building a new governing coalition of conservatives and moderates.

There are, of course, any number of reasons why Republicans should be optimistic--though not complacent--about next month's elections. Redistricting, on balance, works in the GOP's favor. Republicans will also benefit from one of the iron laws of U.S. politics: The party of the President, even popular ones like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, loses congressional seats in off-year elections.

With most congressional incumbents being Democrats, Republicans stand ready to tap the anti-incumbency fever gripping the country. The angry national mood against Washington will work against congressional Democrats, many of whom have grown remote from their constituencies and disdainful of reform after decades of nearly unchallenged rule.

Finally, the GOP should be able to capitalize on the unprecedented unpopularity of the President himself, especially in the South and West. Part of this, no doubt, is due to the President's leftward "old Democrat" approach to policy and personnel; part is a result of the Administration's style of governing, where late night, collegial sessions over pizza often take the place of the councils of government, and part is the result of a confused foreign policy. But the depth of the animosity exhibited against the President seems to go deeper than partisan politics--to the core of his leadership style.

More important for the long-term, however, Republicans have an opportunity to help shape a growing conservatism among American voters. That conservatism shows up in poll after poll, where Americans are on record for tougher measures against crime, stricter welfare regulations and a return to traditional values like personal responsibility, hard work and obligation to family. More generally, increasing numbers of Americans are profoundly mistrustful of government, especially at the federal level. They believe it has grown too large, too expensive and too intrusive in their lives.

This rising public skepticism about the role of government is the fundamental reason for the spectacular failure of the Administration's health-care proposal. Much as most Americans lauded the President's goals of universal coverage and cost-containment, they drew back, rightly, at the prospect of turning the nation's health-care system over to federal bureaucrats. It wasn't the special interests or GOP obstructionism that doomed the Clinton health-care plan. The plan itself was simply unacceptable to a citizenry wary of too much government.

This growing conservative mood does not translate into a strict ideological majority. The balance of U.S. political power in general elections remains where it has always been: with the tens of millions of moderates. Now, however, those moderates share a range of convictions--on crime, welfare, values and, above all, the role of government--that resonate far more among conservatives than liberals.

And because they do, Republicans possess a real opportunity--this fall and then, in 1996, at the presidential level--of building a governing coalition of moderates and conservatives.

The strongest governments in America have been the result of coalitions. Franklin D. Roosevelt's coalition of the center-left brought in the New Deal and forever altered the shape of American society. Reagan's own coalition, of the center-right, ushered in sweeping changes, leading to the creation of more than 20 million jobs, the longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history and ultimately the end of the East-West confrontation.

Some believed that Bill Clinton's election in 1992 had revealed the possibility of creating yet another governing coalition of the center-left. Such predictions, it is now clear, were premature. Indeed, the record of the Administration over the last 20 months irrefutably demonstrates that no workable center-left coalition exists. The reason is simple. Moderates have moved right. Liberals have not.

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