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'Big Tent' Leaves Out Most Republican Voters

GOP: By running an issueless campaign, candidates allowed Democrats to define them.

November 16, 1998|TOM McCLINTOCK | Tom McClintock (R-Northridge) represents the 38th Assembly District in the California Legislature

It is said that victors celebrate while losers contemplate. Among Republicans, there's a whole lot of contemplating going on right now.

"As long as my party is perceived as antiabortion, anti-reasonable gun control and anti-environment, we will be a minority party for the next generation," Assemblyman Jim Cunneen of San Jose said. A superficial review of the election returns certainly backs up such "Big Tent" Republicans. California Democrats ran relentlessly on the old formula of "abortion, guns and the environment" and won decisively.

But if the Republican ticket was just too conservative for mainstream Californians, why is it that the conservatives stayed home? According to the Field Poll's Mark DiCamillo, "Latinos turned out, the Democrats' constituency turned out. The missing element was the Republicans--the Republicans did not turn out."

The Big Tent advocates of Republican moderation need not worry about the party becoming too conservative--the conservatives have already left. The 1998 election was the result. And it was a result foreordained after the leadership of the California Republican Party systematically threw away every issue worthy of debate.

In September 1997, Republican leaders gathered to discuss how to win the 1998 legislative races. The paragons of moderation were caught off guard when someone asked, "What issues will the Republicans run on in 1998?" The panel hurriedly agreed that "1998 is shaping up as an issueless campaign." Victory would be achieved, they promised, by "out-organizing and out-hustling" the Democrats. Republicans ran on fuzzy images of the candidates as "good people" opposed to crime and in favor of children.

In this "issueless" environment, Democrats were free to define Republicans according to issues of their own choosing. And, surprise, the issues the Democrats chose were not flattering to the Republicans.

Are pro-life Republicans on the wrong side of the voters? Certainly--by a 2 to 1 margin. Is this the issue that guides most voters in their decisions? Certainly not. Only the extremes view abortion as a primary issue, and then it breaks about evenly: 12% of those who voted for Gray Davis said abortion was one of the "most important issues in deciding" their vote, but 13% of Dan Lungren's voters said the same thing. The problem is this: If there aren't any other issues being discussed that people care about, then ancillary issues like abortion and guns determine voters' decisions.

The Republicans never raised the conservative issues that people care about, like why all the money we're spending ($7,350 per pupil at latest count) isn't getting into our children's classrooms or why with the third heaviest vehicle taxes in the country our roads are disintegrating and clogged or why state spending keeps going up while everything from parks to libraries keeps deteriorating?

What will happen if Republicans abandon their traditional constituencies? In the case of abortion, the vast majority of single-issue pro-choice voters will continue to vote Democratic. The single-issue pro-life voters will stay home. Multiply that by the other constituencies that some would eject from the Republican base, and there are not a lot of people left to fill the Big Tent.

By the left's definitions, Ronald Reagan was the ultimate pro-life, pro-gun, anti-environmental right-wing political extremist, destined to certain failure. But Reagan stood for a great deal more. He spoke for the forgotten constituency that was--and is--desperate to be relieved of the crushing financial burdens and devastating social failures of rampant and wasteful big government.

When Reagan spoke unambiguously for the Republicans, including uncompromising pro-life and pro-gun positions, Republicans won tremendous victories. But when the party's message became bland, ambiguous and issueless in the 1990s, Republican fortunes plummeted--not because voters have flocked to the Democrats, but because the vast constituency that wants government off its back looks at both parties and opts out.

When the Whig party abandoned key constituencies and reduced itself to a pale reflection of the Democrats, a new party was born on the principled stands of an unlikely politician from Illinois. Jesse "The Body" Ventura is no Lincoln, but he spoke for the old Reagan coalition when Minnesota's major parties did not. It was Ventura's "Retaliate in '98" message (after neither party returned a multibillion-dollar state surplus to taxpayers) and not his position on abortion that energized voters. And that is the lesson of 1998.

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