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Will the Real GOP Please Stand Up And Defend Itself

Republican surge to the right has the makings of a political tragedy

By Rod MacLeish. Rod MacLeish is Monitor Radio's Washington editor. / May 15, 1996



To the dismay of its members and admirers, the Republican Party is gripped by a self-destructive crisis.

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Moderate Republican senators are ending their careers. Many feel they no longer belong in a party moving so far to the right. Several House Republicans say they are thinking of skipping their party's convention in August. They think it will become a senseless slugfest between moderates and Republican extremists.

Abortion is the most prominent issue dividing Republicans. Besides being an intractable question in and of itself - the GOP platform either will or won't have a pro-life plank - the abortion issue is also a symptom of deeper, more fundamental rifts that could threaten the coherence of the Republican Party for years to come.

Moderate Republicans, including Govs. Christine Todd Whitman, George Pataki, and Pete Wilson, are arguing for a party that is relevant to contemporary public concerns and issues. They are insisting that the GOP be inclusive - even of people who don't fully share all its views - and that its philosophic core be broad and sophisticated enough to form the basis for a vast range of domestic and foreign policies.

By contrast, the various right-wing Republican groups are focused on a handful of issues: abortion rights, gun control, the unconstitutionality of school prayer, and the perception that the family is under assault by the forces of immorality unleashed by liberalism. The right wing of the Republican Party tends to be against all of the above, as well as its other target issues.

GOP ultraconservatives display little interest in the major problems and policies of national government. Their views on fiscal policy, the urban crisis, defense, agriculture, and communications, among others, are vague to nonexistent.

In other words, the far right, unlike the mainstream Republican Party, is intellectually and politically incapable of governing - even if it could attract enough voters to its cause.

Yet the GOP is surging to the right because its extremists are the most vocal, if not the most popular, wing of the party and because the right wing is threatening to turn August's Republican convention into an exercise in trench warfare.

This has the makings of a political tragedy. Sen. Bob Dole's leadership abilities are already becoming suspect because of his inability to deal effectively with the right wing. Battered by attempts at matricide by its own ultraconservative offspring, the Republican Party may enter the autumn campaign as a blur of contradictory or compromised beliefs.

The majority (moderate) GOP has much to offer this year's national political debate. But first, it must figure out how to defend itself against its extremist wing which, as well as being incapable of governing, can't even sensibly argue the great issues confronting the country.