George Will

     NEW YORK -- Barry is back.   

  Four decades after a Republican convention in San Francisco nominated Sen. Goldwater, sealing the ascendancy of conservatism within the party, his kind of conservatism made a comeback at the convention here. That conservatism -- muscular foreign policy backing unapologetic nationalism; economic policies of low taxation and light regulation; a libertarian inclination regarding cultural questions -- is not fully ascendant in the party. But the prominent display and rapturous reception of Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated that such conservatism is not an insurmountable impediment to a person reaching the party's highest echelons.

     Conventions, long since transformed from deliberative or at least deciding bodies into ratifiers of decisions made elsewhere, are nevertheless intensely interesting. Just as the Soviet press merited close scrutiny because it was closely controlled to serve the regime's purposes, today's conventions give clarity to the parties' thinking. For the first time since 1940, the Republicans' ideological differences about some deeply felt convictions were cheerfully displayed rather than tensely ignored.

     The nomination in 1940 of Wendell Willkie, a liberal businessman, rather than Ohio's Sen. Robert Taft, the conservatives' favorite, was replicated in 1944, 1948 and 1952 by the nomination twice of New York's Gov. Thomas Dewey and then Dwight Eisenhower, the choices of the party's dominant Eastern liberals. But from the podium of the 1960 convention, Goldwater exhorted conservatives to ``take this party back.'' In 1964 they did.

     Subsequent conventions heard the long withdrawing sigh of liberal Republicanism -- and the rise of ``social issues conservatism.'' The cultural fraying of the 1960s and, in 1973, the Supreme Court's ruinous removal of abortion from the control of representative institutions, gave social issues special saliency. They were more important than race in the rise of Republicanism in the South.

     But the domination of the Republican Party by cultural conservatives did make some other conservatives -- libertarians and religious skeptics, among others -- feel uneasy, even unwelcome. Being derided as RINOs -- Republicans in name only -- did not help. And the dominance of the cultural conservatives gave force to the Democrats' and media's caricatures of the Republican Party as a brackish lagoon of intolerance, a caricature that, like all caricatures, contained a trace of truth.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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