In the run-up to the fateful election of 2008, conservatives face a clear-cut choice: we can rebuild our movement as a broad-ranging, mainstream coalition and restore our governing majority, or else settle for a semi-permanent role as angry, doom-speaking complainers on the fringes of American politics and culture.
We can either invite doubters and moderates to join with us in new efforts to affirm American values, or we can push them away because they fail to measure up to our own standards of indignation and ideological purity.
In short, we must choose between addition and subtraction: either building our cause by adding to our numbers or destroying it by discouraging all but the fiercest ideologues.
No political party or faction has ever thrived based on purges and insults and internal warfare, but too many activists on the right seem determined to reduce the conservative cause to self-righteous irrelevance.
The most recent outrage involving Ann Coulter provides a revealing example of the self-destructive tendencies of some dedicated partisans on the right. Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., the best-selling author and glamorous Time magazine cover girl declared: “I was going to have a few comments about the other Democratic candidate for President, John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot’ so I’m kind of at an impasse. I can’t really talk about Edwards.”
Some members of the audience gasped as she deployed the forbidden slur, but many others laughed and applauded. Naturally, Democratic Chair Howard Dean and many others pounced on the incident as another example of conservative viciousness and bigotry, demanding that all Republican Presidential candidates dissociate themselves from Coulter’s comments.
This challenge creates a miserable dilemma for every GOP contender. If the candidate ignores the controversy, he looks gutless and paralyzed in the face of obviously inappropriate and over-the-top insults. If he condemns Coulter, he looks like he’s wimping out to the liberal establishment and offends right-wing true believers who feel instinctively protective of Ann the Outrageous. Any comment by a presidential candidate also refocuses the national conversation on the absurd and unacceptable suggestion that John Edwards is secretly gay.
To paraphrase the old line attributed to Talleyrand: this smear amounts to worse than a crime, it is a blunder. John Edwards deserves contempt and derision on many counts, and I go after him (regularly) on my radio show for his extreme left wing positions on foreign policy and health care, his shameless opportunism, even his long history as a fabulously wealthy and floridly hypocritical ambulance-chasing attorney. Ann Coulter could have found plenty to say about the former North Carolina Senator without invoking the dreaded f-word (all right, the other dreaded f-word).
In fact, Edwards has been a visibly loyal husband to Elizabeth, his wife of more than 29 years, who’s currently battling breast cancer. Together, they’ve brought five children into the world, including a son who died in a tragic traffic accident at age 16. Drawing attention to Edwards’ personal life and away from his policies only helps Edwards and harms conservatives.
In other words, the lame attempt to question the Senator’s sexual orientation is precisely the wrong attack, and Coulter herself is most certainly the wrong attacker. If this issue continues to attract attention, indignant liberals will no doubt point out that the devoted family man from North Carolina exemplifies traditional values far more notably than the mini-skirted, never-married provocateur from the right.
Personally, I like and admire Ann Coulter, and I’ve always defended her in the past – even when liberals gleefully quoted out-of-context from her recent bestseller “Godless” to make it sound as if she suggested that 9/11 widows wanted their own husbands to die and celebrated their fiery deaths. Her caustic humor often upstages her serious and substantive political points, as did the notorious headline “They Shot the Wrong Lincoln” appended to her column attacking her fellow Republican, Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee. That one opinion piece didn’t doom Chafee’s re-election bid, but movement conservatives like Coulter and many others expressed the desire for his defeat—a loss that insured the Democrats’ one-vote margin in the Senate.
The Coulter commentary (and the subsequent applause) reinforced the public image of conservatives as unreasonably hostile to gay people in general, not just opposed to the dubious particulars of the so-called “gay rights” agenda. In fact, exit polls showed that self-identified gay people made up 4% of the total electorate in the incomparably close election of 2000, and nearly one third of those homosexual voters cast their ballots for George W. Bush. In other words, more than a million gay citizens voted for Bush-Cheney, in a race that ultimately turned on a mere 527 votes in Florida, and a national margin in the popular vote of just 537,000 for Gore.
What sense does it make for a featured speaker at a conservative conference to deliver gratuitous insult and offense to that stalwart minority of homosexuals who still choose to cast their lot with Republicans, despite the party’s impassioned (and appropriate) opposition to gay marriage?
By the same token, how does it help for one of the nation’s highest profile conservative talk hosts to use his broadcast on the Martin Luther King holiday to insult the fallen hero as unworthy of federal commemoration? Yes, the overwhelming majority of African-Americans votes incurably Democratic, but in 2004, Bush still drew well over a million-and-a-half black votes. It doesn’t help these courageous dissenters from politically correct orthodoxy if loud voices on the right make them wonder whether Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean are right about the racism of Republicans.
Finally, the most serious challenge of all involves the rapidly growing and increasingly prosperous Latino communities. Were it not for his competitive showing among Hispanics (with some 35% of their votes in 2000, and above 40% in 2004), Bush wouldn’t even have come close to victory, either time.
Meanwhile, elements of the President’s party seem perversely determined to make sure that no future Republican repeats this success with the nation’s fastest growing minority group. Imagine how naturalized Hispanic citizens, or even native-born Latinos might feel, at the suggestion that their cousins amount to an “invading army” bent on destroying America, or the common equation of terrorists (who have all been legal U.S. entrants by the way) and those who enter the country to care for our children and mow our lawns. Anti-immigrant rhetoric (which increasingly dispenses with any distinction between legal and illegal arrivals) provoked a disastrous shift of Latino voters away from the GOP in 2006. If Republicans continue to draw just 20% of Hispanic votes they will never regain control of Congress and stand scant chance of retaining the White House. Nativist posturing (like Congressman Tom Tancredo’s obnoxious slogan, “America Is Full”) may play well with some elements of the conservative base but it could easily doom Republicans to permanent minority status.
The situation hardly requires retreat and retrenchment on key issues of principle in the vague hope of winning more minority support.
Republicans don’t need to drop our implacable opposition to gay marriage in order reach out to gays.
We don’t need to reverse our criticism of race-based quotas in order to bring more black involvement in the party.
And we certainly don’t need to endorse automatic amnesty or “open borders” as a way to connect with Latino voters – but we might want to avoid widespread public advertising for games like “Find the Illegal Immigrant” (devised by a College Republicans chapter in New York City) or giving undeserved respect to crackpot fringe groups like the scandal-tainted “Minute Man Civil Defense Corps.”.
On all the important issues, it’s not substance that needs to change, it’s style.
Republicans need to return to the open, expansive conservatism of Ronald Reagan: more concerned with bringing in newcomers than driving out dissenters, more committed to winning elections than to scoring points in arguments, more determined to steer the government in the right direction than to sit at the sidelines carping about inevitable decline. We should make skeptics feel welcome as Republicans and urge them to fight the issues inside the party where they can have the most impact.
Every major event, every potential speaker, every resolution, every specific approach, deserves evaluation in terms of effectiveness in party building—winning new adherents to the cause.
We should ask a crucial question before we speak or act: will this draw people to conservative ideas and ideals, or will it serve to turn them off and push them away?
It’s not a matter of pandering; it’s an expression of practical politics. At this crucial juncture, conservatives need to recall the obvious point that you strengthen your cause most effectively when you’re appealing, not appalling.