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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON THE ELECTION

Pragmatism Yes, Moralism No

The religious right was defeated. To prevail in 2000, the GOP must look to its moderate wing.

November 05, 1998|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. E-mail: pinkerto@ix.netcom.com

James Carville was right. It was about sex. It wasn't just Bill Clinton's sex life that was at issue in this election, however, but also the private life of the American people. And their message was clear: Voters rejected the Ken Starr/Henry Hyde inquiry into the president's personal behavior, and they repudiated the hard-shell moralism that the Republican Party chose to project nationwide.

Republicans who let themselves be defined as right-wingers--Clinton-haters, ardent pro-lifers, gay-bashers and religious true believers--did poorly. And so such incumbents as Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, Gov. David Beasley of South Carolina and Rep. Vince Snowbarger of Kansas were defeated. Another in that doomed-zealot category was former Rep. Bob Dornan, clobbered in his attempted Orange County comeback. Even millionaire Peter Fitzgerald, who outspent Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, arguably the most scandal-plagued incumbent on the ballot this year, barely won his challenge when Illinois voters began to ponder his positions on abortion and other social issues.

To be sure, Democrats fortuitously gained energy from recent news events, notably the murders of an abortion doctor in western New York and of a gay college student in Wyoming. The resulting backlash not only helped Democrat (and out-of-the-closet lesbian) Tammy Baldwin win a Republican House seat in Wisconsin, but also helped defeat Republicans such as Sen. Al D'Amato of New York, who was seen as soft on the subject of anti-abortion violence.

Yet those Republicans who spoke up for moderation and the rule of law were unscathed by the violence. D'Amato's fellow New Yorker, Gov. George Pataki, denounced the killing of the doctor and used the occasion to remind voters that he supported the death penalty. And in the Wyoming hate-crime case, Gov. Jim Geringer was equally resolute in his response and also was reelected comfortably.

Indeed, the real story of the 1998 midterms is the different fate of the two Republican parties, one of which lost and one of which won.

Put simply, the Ralph Reed-Gary Bauer Republicans were trounced, while the pragmatic George W. Bush-Pataki Republicans, mostly governors, were triumphant. In big states across the country, from New York to Pennsylvania to Florida and throughout the Midwest, Republican chief executives--many of whom barely squeaked into office four years ago--were reelected comfortably, running on platforms of tax cuts and welfare reform. Even Lincoln Almond and Paul Cellucci, the Republican governors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, arguably the two most Democratic states in the country, both won additional terms. But Dan Lungren, the GOP candidate for governor of the biggest prize of all, California, lost.

Republicans also should pay heed to the victory of Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who won as the Reform Party gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota. Ventura campaigned on an essentially libertarian agenda, which he described as "fiscally conservative, socially moderate to liberal."

So what's next? Republicans on Capitol Hill, who threw away what could have been a smashing victory by overplaying scandal and underplaying competence, are manifestly in need of new leadership. Whether they come to grips with that reality will determine the longevity of their majority.

As for the next presidential election, the fantasy of nominating a social-issue conservative now must be regarded as a formula for a third consecutive term for Democrats in the White House. Indeed, if Republicans want to compete in 2000, they will have to loosen the stranglehold of their ideological fringe, just as Democrats did when they bypassed their own suicidal liberals in 1992 and nominated "New Democrat" Clinton.

Bush, reelected to the Texas statehouse with 69% of the vote, made that point plainly. "Compassionate conservatism," he said in his victory speech, is about "opening the doors of the Republican Party to new faces and new voices." Such words are of course code for the kind of big-tent inclusionary politics that conservative ideologues scorn. But the ideologues lost badly on Tuesday, and the pragmatists won big. It's hard to see how that message from the voters could have been communicated more clearly.

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