The big tent

Posted: Sep 02, 2004 12:00 AM

     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.

     The re-emergence into Republican respectability of conservatism with a socially libertarian cast -- Goldwaterism -- is a development with a large potential to discomfort the Democratic Party. The re-emergence can make the Republican Party more appealing to many young and suburban voters, two cohorts in which Democrats have recently made substantial gains.

     The smooth surface of the Republican convention, unblemished by factional fighting, is partly produced by two kinds of heat. One is the heat of war, which has made all other issues seem distinctly marginal. The other is the heat of intense dislike of Democrats -- of some Democrats much more than of John Kerry. In a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, Kerry is the Democrat disliked by only 5 percent of Republicans. He ranks sixth behind Hillary Clinton (24 percent), Bill Clinton (19), Ted Kennedy (19), Jesse Jackson (11) and Al Gore (7).

     The Republican Party's challenge is to keep its old fissures closed while relaxing the stringency of its social issues catechism. Republicans can derive encouragement from a long-lived coalition that was composed of elements far more discordant than a Republican Party that includes John Ashcroft as well as Giuliani and Schwarzenegger. FDR's ``Roosevelt Coalition,'' which was born with the New Deal and did not crumble for four decades, balanced Northern liberals, intellectuals, organized labor and Southern segregationists.

     And Republicans can learn a lesson that Democrats largely spurned 34 years ago. In 1970, as the Democratic Party was beginning to make the mistakes that made millions of Reagan Democrats, two Democrats, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, wrote a wise book, ``The Real Majority.'' In it they advised their party that the enveloping sense of social dissolution had many voters saying:

I do not expect a politician, any politician, can make these conditions disappear overnight. I even understand that some of the problems aren't strictly political problems. But I do expect that any politician I vote for will be on my side.'

     The Republican Party remains firmly on the side of the pro-life and religiously motivated social conservatives. But here this week the party began in earnest the task of making others not only more comfortable within the party, but eligible to rank among its leaders.

     Goldwater was, in a way, the first angry man of the angry Sixties. But he actually smiled far more than he scowled. In his last years some conservatives excommunicated him because of his support for abortion rights and his relaxed views regarding homosexuality. However, this week his spirit is smiling broadly.