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Conservative Win Means GOP Intraparty Brawl

October 30, 1994|Sidney Blumenthal | Sidney Blumenthal is the special political correspondent of the New Yorker and the author of "Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War."

WASHINGTON — The conservative strategy seems to be working. The man who would be speaker, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), feels so confident that he boasts to talk-show host Rush Limbaugh about the odds being 2-1 that the Republicans will soon be the majority. Presi dent Bill Clinton, having been systematically obstructed by Senate Republican filibusters on domestic policy, must travel abroad to demonstrate his effectiveness. From coast to coast, Democratic icons--Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington state--struggle for survival.

Within the GOP, the shadow of George Bush appears to have been lifted only two years after his defeat--as though he left no imprint. The weightlessness of the Bush legacy can be seen in the prospects of his sons--George W. and Jeb Bush, running for the governorships of Texas and Florida. Neither heir carries a taint of the discredited GOP standard-bearer.

But for conservatives, the Bush presidency is considered a tragic mistake, a time in which the golden age of Reaganism was besmirched by traitorous compromise. Now, with the mass loyalty oath taken by congressional candidates to the "Contract With America," a platform promising about $1 trillion in budget cuts without a hint about how this feat will be accomplished, the blemish has been erased.

But the presumptive conservative restoration does not include the happy mood Ronald Reagan so easily projected. On the contrary, it is the electorate's sullen mood that has given the conservatives an opening. The creation of cynicism about the ability of government to achieve anything positive has been the conservatives' deliberate intent. For years, Gingrich and his minions have waged a brutal war to discredit Congress as an institution, with the idea that they could win only through wreckage.

Negativity is the essence of the conservatives' assault. They have nurtured and exploited a negative public mood that, in turn, has wrapped itself around the conservatives' message of negative government. Cynicism has been used to breed cynicism. The conservative program can be summarized as "anti"--anti-tax, anti-government, anti-incumbent, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare, anti-criminal--with all the categories conflated into one angry impulse.

This is rooted in traditions of no-nothing nativism and Social Darwinism. No one should be surprised that the celebrated conservative book of this campaign season is "The Bell Curve," which proclaims that blacks are inherently inferior in intelligence.

The trend to the right has filled conservatives with a barely containable feeling of impending triumph. And the ruthless tactics they have used against Democrats will soon be turned on moderate Republicans who fail to follow their rigid line. Having fostered a vicious mood that they have ridden in the mid-term elections, conservatives will now try to use it within the GOP to control the presidential nominating process.

For, even if Gingrich's predictions prove correct, Election Day may not bring the end of the conservatives' frustrations. Instead, with the increased tensions in the party, conservatives may again feel betrayed.

The contradictions that will wrack the GOP as it moves toward the 1996 presidential campaign are apparent in the midterm elections. They involve sharp differences on policy, the party and the responsibilities of governing.

The first break in the GOP ranks, a sign of future conflict, came in Virginia. In June, the state Republican Party, heavily influenced by the religious right, nominated Oliver L. North as its candidate for the U.S. Senate. North's rise led Republican Sen. John W. Warner to move against him. Warner represents the more traditional conservatism of the Virginia GOP. He is opposed to the religious right's takeover. And he is profoundly offended by North's contempt for the institution of the Senate by lying to it in his appearance as a witness during the Iran-Contra hearings. No conservative, indeed, has displayed more contempt for government than North.

At Warner's urging, the former lieutenant governor, J. Marshall Coleman, from the old line of the state GOP, entered the race as an independent. Yet, the battle of the Establishment Republicans and the religious right will hardly be settled by the outcome in Virginia; nor is the struggle confined to one state.

Since the 1992 Houston convention, Republicans have attempted to smooth the harshness of their stand on social issues--particularly expressing a willingness to avoid pressing the outlawing of abortion. Much of the religious right's leadership seeks to be cut into the GOP deal-making at the top. They are privately eager to make compromises on matters their followers believe are positions rooted in divine truth. The North candidacy and its fallout shows that the religious right, and the social issues attached to it, may not be so simple to handle.

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