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In His Image

Now that President Bush has put his face on the Republican Party, can it reclaim the suburban swing voters the Democrats wooed away?

January 05, 2003|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a CNN political analyst.

WASHINGTON — George W. Bush now owns the Republican Party. He has brought it to the promised land. For the first time in nearly 50 years, Republicans control everything -- the White House, the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, even the Supreme Court, which made Bush president.

Moreover, Bush has remade the Republican Party in his own image. That's what the overthrow of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was all about last month. The barely disguised White House campaign to get Lott out and Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in was an effort to put a new face on the GOP. Bush's face. Frist, after all, is Bush's man.

Not only has Lott given way to Frist, but two stalwarts of the old GOP have departed. Sen. Jesse Helms is out, replaced by Elizabeth Hanford Dole. Strom Thurmond is out, replaced by Lindsey O. Graham -- once a John McCain presidential supporter.

It's a whole new GOP.

Or is it? The Republican Party is still a very Southern party. Even more so after the November elections. The shift from Lott to Frist does not represent much of an ideological change. Both senators are staunch conservatives with similar voting records. In ratings compiled by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, Lott got 5% in 2000; Frist got 0%. The American Conservative Union gave Lott 100%, Frist 92%. The Christian Coalition of America gave both senators 92%.

If there's a difference between the old GOP and the new GOP, it's one of style more than ideology. Bush, after all, is a pretty conservative fellow. But he's a compassionate conservative. Does that make a difference? You bet it does.

The Republican Party has long suffered the burden of being the party of mean old white guys -- like Helms and Thurmond and Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole and Tom DeLay and Phil Gramm (gone) and Dick Armey (gone). Plus any number of venomous radio talk-show hosts. Bush has set out to turn the Republican Party into a party of nice guys. Like him. And Frist -- a physician with a friendly bedside manner. Kinder, gentler conservatives.

The objective is to attract swing voters. That means suburban voters -- those soccer moms and office-park dads who now make up a solid majority of the electorate. In the old days before the 1992 election, Republicans knew how to reach suburban voters. They did it with one word: taxes. More precisely, two words: low taxes. Moving to the suburbs usually means becoming a homeowner. Homeowners don't see themselves as beneficiaries of public services. They see themselves as taxpayers. Ever hear of Proposition 13?

Taxpayers want government to do two things: keep taxes low and keep the economy booming. Do that, they say, and we can solve our problems for ourselves. The Republican lock on the suburbs was broken in 1992, however, after the first President Bush. Bush did two things that infuriated suburban voters. He let the economy falter. And he raised taxes. Ask any suburban politician what's the fastest way to commit political suicide, and he or she will tell you: Raise taxes.

Bush's betrayal opened the way for the Democrats, under Bill Clinton, to establish credibility with suburban voters. It wasn't easy.

One of the first things Clinton did as president was raise taxes, mostly on the wealthy, to help get the deficit under control. Betrayed again! Suburban voters (among others) wrought a terrible vengeance on the Democrats in 1994. They gave the GOP control of Congress, which has lasted eight years (interrupted briefly by Vermont's James M. Jeffords' switch to independent in the Senate) and is likely to continue for a while.

Clinton got the message. He set about reassuring suburban voters that the Democratic Party had changed. It was no longer the party of taxes and spending. "The era of big government is over," Clinton proclaimed in January 1996. He sealed the message with a spectacular economic boom (or bubble, as many would now call it).

What were Clinton's major policy achievements as president? Three things: welfare reform, free trade and a balanced budget -- none of them of much interest to Democrats. But those policies served to minimize the differences between the two parties on economic policy. For the first time, large numbers of suburban voters went Democratic, with Clinton splitting the suburban vote with Dole in 1996.

Suburban voters are united in their economic interests (low taxes). But they are divided on values (there are liberal suburbs and conservative suburbs). As long as the economic issue is neutralized -- which means, as long as the Democrats don't backslide to their old taxing-and-spending ways -- suburban voters will be free to divide along cultural lines. Exactly as they did in 2000 and 2002.

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