McCain's A-list for 'big tent'

Finding the right mix for a party can be a difficult thing. You always want an interesting mix of people from different walks of life with different sorts of ideas. But at the same time, if you invite a group that's too eclectic, you end up with problems.

Discussions turn into loud arguments - maybe even fights. And that is not what one would call proper Martha Stewart etiquette. In fact, it's a good way to scare everyone off.

So it is now with that Grand Old Party, the Republicans.

Despite the much ballyhooed Republican tsunami in the mid-term elections of 1994 - which today looks more like a ripple - the truth is, things haven't been rosy in the Republican Party for a while now. And the GOP's problems, which have been so evident in the past few weeks - as John McCain attacks elements of the Christian Right and George W. reaches out to it - are more than just primary-campaign bickering. They are the sounds of a party that has gotten out of hand.

The problems go back further than New Hampshire or South Carolina. They can actually be traced all the way back to 1980, when the party was jumping to the sounds of GOP strategist Lee Atwater's 'big tent' coalition and bandleader Ronald Reagan.

The 'big tent' idea of the Republican party, which held that there was room in the party for people of all views, made for some good times. But in the end, like all big parties, it was inherently unstable. Big tents are fun places to have a party when you have a communicator like Mr. Reagan at the helm who can placate the wings and still reach the center (as in 1980 and 1984) or when you have a solid economy to run on (1988).

But even the best-built 'big tent' is doomed to collapse. When the music stops - that is, when your candidate is less than sparkling, or when the economic good times end - there will suddenly come a point when all those people with differing points of view take the time to talk to one another. And, in all likelihood, they won't like what they hear.

This is where the GOP is now. Over the past few elections a lot of people have decided they don't really like the company at this party. They have begun wandering away from the tent. And the Republicans have been left with two choices.

On one side there is George W., who is playing the role of the desperate host, trying to keep the party alive. He's doing what he can to lure everyone back into the tent with promises of change, while promising the hard-core faithful that things won't change too much.

This has, of course, led to some interesting acrobatics. For instance, George W. Bush says he wants to keep the party's hard-line stance on abortion (pro-life, no exceptions) in the platform, while still promising exceptions in the cases of rape and the life of the mother.

On the other side is Mr. McCain, who essentially believes the old party is over. That is what his recent speech in Virginia attacking Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell was about. He was basically arguing that the tent may be big, but it isn't big enough for everyone.

There comes a point when a party built around the 'big tent' idea has to start picking and choosing who it wants to stay and who it wants to go. It has to decide where it stands.

McCain was careful last week in his condemnations (until he called Robertson and Falwell "evil," in what he later said was a joke). While he attacked some elements of the Christian Right, he praised others - notably Jim Dobson. His message was not that the Christian Right didn't belong in the GOP, but that parts of it had no place in a party that was trying to appeal to moderates and independents.

There is some precedent here. After suffering through the crushing defeats of Mondale and Dukakis in 1984 and 1988, Clinton took the Democratic party to the center in 1992. Most memorably he addressed a Rainbow Coalition meeting and said he welcomed their support, but also criticized Sister Souljah, a rapper in attendance who was known for promoting antiwhite views.

He wanted to let the extreme parts of the party know that the Democrats would no longer be hostage to their concerns and he won. The question is whether the GOP learned anything from this. And, thus far, all the indications are that it hasn't.

Today's primaries may be a good indicator of how bad things are for the party. If, as it appears from polling, McCain wins much of New England and Bush wins the South, it should start to become clear that the problems are serious.

And even if, as it appears right now, George W. gets the nomination, there is still time for him to quietly ask some guests to leave. But McCain's message has to get through. Pack up the 'big tent', the old party's over. Time to build a new guest list.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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