WASHINGTON — More than a few Republicans have warned that, by taking on Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld may start a "civil war" in the GOP.
Now wait a minute. Civil wars are fought over issues people care deeply about. Not over whether or not Weld becomes ambassador to Mexico. Why should Weld's confirmation, which Helms has vowed to block, provoke a fratricidal conflict between moderate and conservative Republicans? Because the roots of the conflict between Weld and Helms run deep. In fact, they run all the way back to . . . the Civil War.
The Civil War pitted New England Yankees against Southern conservatives. Weld is a Boston Brahmin, the pinnacle of the New England Yankee tradition. He's Episcopalian. He went to Harvard. He's a liberal social reformer, the modern-day incarnation of Yankee abolitionism. Helms is a Southern Baptist educated at Wingate College and Wake Forest University, two Southern Baptist schools. He has deep roots in the conservative traditions of the Old South. In his campaigns, Helms has been known to exploit the race issue for political advantage, which is exactly how slave owners and conservatives used to dominate Southern politics. One Helms ad in the 1990 campaign showed a white man's hands crumpling a rejection slip as he voiced frustration over racial quotas.
Hold on a second. Weren't Southern slave owners and conservatives Democrats? Yes, they were. And so was Helms. But like many white Southern Democrats, Helms switched parties. He and other conservative Southern Democrats moved into the Republican Party--Weld's Republican Party--and took it over. Which is why Weld Republicans are so resentful.
For a century after the Civil War, the GOP establishment came from the Northeast. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller all had ties to New York and New England.
Theirs was a moderate Republican tradition--conservative on economic issues, liberal on social issues. Teddy Roosevelt was the great conservationist. Willkie was the great internationalist. Ike sent troops to Little Rock to enforce school desegregation.
That is Weld's tradition. His base is the Northeastern business elite--educated, moneyed, pragmatic, high-minded and reformist. Liberal on race, liberal on abortion, liberal on gay rights. It's an elitist tradition: "Volvo Republicans."
Helms is their hereditary enemy. His ancestors fought their ancestors over slavery. Last week, it was revealed that Weld's wife, a direct descendant of Teddy Roosevelt, gave money to Harvey Gantt, Helms' Democratic (and African American) opponent in the North Carolina Senate race.
Helms' tradition is that of the conservative Southern aristocracy, which held on to power after the Civil War by appropriating a powerful populist issue: white supremacy. After the civil rights revolution took the white supremacy issue away from them, the conservative Southern establishment switched to the GOP. Strom Thurmond pointed the way. Helms joined him, as did John Connally, Phil Gramm, Dick Shelby and others.
Richard M. Nixon used the "Southern strategy" to draw George C. Wallace voters into the GOP. Ronald Reagan brought the religious right into the party. That's not elitism. That's populism.
Southern Republicans have been gaining power in the GOP. Look at the Republican leadership of Congress: Trent Lott of Mississippi, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Connie Mack of Florida, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas. Not a Northeasterner among them.
Moderate Republicans feel like they're being pushed out of their own party. Look at what happened to their presidential candidates. Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton got whipped by Barry Goldwater back in 1964. John Lindsay switched parties and ran for president as a Democrat in 1972.
John Anderson left the GOP after it was taken over by Reagan and ran as an Independent in 1980. Arlen Specter ran as the moderate Republican standard-bearer for the 1996 nomination. His campaign ended in November 1995, before the race even started.
Could Weld be running for president? He has handled his nomination so undiplomatically that a lot of people think he really doesn't want to be confirmed. Perhaps he's positioning himself for the next presidential race by taking on Helms and making himself a hero to moderate Republicans. Could Weld hope to do any better than Specter?
Weld could certainly win the New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire is a suburb of Massachusetts, and Weld's popularity in Massachusetts has soared since he took on Helms. Moreover, several candidates are likely to split the conservative Republican vote in New Hampshire. Weld could win with a plurality, just as Patrick J. Buchanan did (Buchanan won in New Hampshire with 28% of the vote).