Righter Than Thou
Think rightwing talk radio is scary? Try tuning in the Republican Presidential campaign. The Republicans who would be President are spewing vitriol so poisonous that even Spiro Agnew might shudder. Inspired by Rush Limbaugh, emboldened by Republican victories in last fall's Congressional elections, and drawn by the blood of a wounded Democratic President, the Republican contenders seem to know no limit to their rightwing rhetoric.
"I don't think there's any doubt this is the most conservative Republican field of candidates you've ever seen," says Kevin Phillips, the former Nixon Administration aide who has since become one of the nation's most astute commentators on Republican politics. "What you're seeing in the 1996 race is the overwhelming dominance of the hard-core conservatives. They aren't holding back anymore."
In their speeches on the campaign trail and in their conversations with this reporter, the Republican candidates are engaging in a rhetorical jihad.
Welcome to the terror dome of Republican politics. The leading fundraiser in the race, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, says, "We're the only nation in the world where all our poor people are fat."
Television commentator Pat Buchanan, who actually runs second in several early primary state polls, defends all-male colleges as symbols of "the real diversity in America," and tells Southern audiences that they should rebuff efforts by civil-rights groups to remove the Confederate battle flag from above their statehouses.
"To me, the Confederate flag represents valor, honor, courage, and the willingness to die for your country," says the former speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. "I think it should stay right where it is."
Frontrunner Bob Dole, once considered a sensible "Main Street Republican," now borrows pages from Dan Quayle. "Let's put the heat on the entertainment industry," he says. "Society pays a steep price when the entertainment industry poisons the minds of our young people. We must hold Hollywood accountable."
The front tier of candidates is feeling the rhetorical heat from those at the back-folks like Representative Robert Dornan. Dornan wants to be perfectly clear about his views regarding the man he hopes to challenge in the November 1996 Presidential election.
"A lot of people make out like I think Clinton's a traitor. That's not quite true," says the nine-term Republican Congressman from California, who earned the nickname "B-1 Bob" by feverishly defending Pentagon outlays for bomber projects. "I didn't call Clinton a traitor. I said he gave aid and comfort to the forces of Hanoi, and of course he did."
Does Dornan mean to suggest that Clinton was lending a hand to Ho Chi Minh?
"You bet I mean that. Clinton gave aid and comfort to Hanoi. And he was doing it at the same time Hanoi was shamelessly slaughtering better Americans than Bill Clinton could ever hope to be," Dornan replies, his face turning the same shade as his carrot-colored hair. "I don't say things wild. I say things directly, forthrightly, and historically. I did not call Clinton a traitor. I said on the House floor that, Rhodes scholarship notwithstanding, he was too dumb to understand what he was doing. That's the point: Clinton doesn't have the brains to be a traitor."
If only to prove that Dornan has no lock on the extremist rhetoric, syndicated talk-show host Alan Keyes, an assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, offers this proposal for tackling misdemeanor crimes: "I think we ought to go over to Singapore and learn how to administer a civil beating."
When most of the Republican contenders showed up in Manchester, New Hampshire, recently for a huge gathering of the party's most rabid stalwarts, teeth were bared and claws were out. The Wall Street Journal<> called it a showcase for "tear-your-throat-out rhetoric."
There was Gramm, a former Democrat, chirping about how "everybody knows America wants a conservative President," and adding, "I was conservative before conservative was cool." The Texan proceeded to claim credit for personally stopping health-care reform in America. "I stood up and said the Clinton health-care plan will pass over my dead political body," squealed the man who through his entire life has had his own body protected by government health-insurance programs. "My political body is very much alive. The Clinton health-care plan is deader than Elvis."
Senate Majority Leader Dole ceded no turf, declaring himself to be a truer conservative than Gramm. As proof, the man who once decried George Bush's "no-new-taxes" pledge as political pandering, announced that "there'll not be any new taxes" in a Dole Administration.
Dole and Gramm were veritable policy wonks compared with Dornan, who declared President Clinton to be an "illegitimate President" and a "serial adulterer." Not to be outdone, Keyes, the only African American in the field, derided his fellow Republicans for wasting time talking about taxes and the economy.
"We don't have money problems, we have moral problems," explained Keyes, who proceeded to compare legalized abortion to slavery and condemn "the licentious behavior" of young Americans. "Whether you are choosing to have a baby out of wedlock or choosing to get an abortion, what is really wrong in that situation is that there is something deeply wrong with your moral compass and you need help. I think it is time we backed away from this loose, permissive attitude toward sexuality."
Buchanan arrived in New Hampshire declaring that "I can win because it is clear to the point of transparency that the ideas of the Buchanan campaign of 1992 took root in America. Indeed, they may now even be heard raucously championed in the well of a Republican House. Our campaign may have lost, but our cause triumphed."
(Another 1992 Republican Presidential candidate, former Klansman David Duke, who is running this year for governor of Louisiana, makes a similar claim. "That Contract with America of Gingrich's--that's mine," he told The Advocate<>, the gay newsweekly. "That's the exact platform I ran on.")
Buchanan, who once defended Ollie North's Iran-Contra schemes as good policy, condemned Gramm and Dole as suspiciously moderate characters whose goose steps were not quite in sync with those of "the new Republicans."
"The new Republicans sense the struggle is broader and deeper. They are not only agency busters and tax cutters but Second and Tenth Amendment men and women," announced Buchanan, who is running second only to Dole in New Hampshire, where his campaign is well organized and adequately funded. "They want to engage the left on every front; to defund it; to drive it back into the redoubts whence it emerged decades ago. They want to return to their places of honor the Republican beliefs, cultural norms, and moral values they were raised with. These are the conservatives of the heart."
Dole, Gramm, Buchanan, Dornan, Keyes, former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, California Governor Pete Wilson, even Indiana Senator Richard Lugar cheerfully claim the right-wing title- -usually with a jab at some ideological impurity on the parts of their opponents.
Craig Butler, executive director of the Fund for New Priorities in America, a New York-based group that closely monitors the tenor of the national discourse, says the Republican candidates go beyond the ideological fringe. To Butler's view, they are stylistic extremists as well.
"This is the most outrageously right-wing field of candidates ever in the history of the United States. They will say and do almost anything," declares Butler. "In the past, there may have been outrageous candidates, but there have never been this many outrageous candidates--and never ever so many that had a chance, if not to win, to at least make a significant showing."
The lone self-identified "moderate" in the Republican Presidential race is Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who comes to the race with a record of relatively high ratings from the AFL-CIO and women's and civil-rights groups. Specter is battling mightily to sell the notion that the Republican Party's economic policies and anti-crime hysteria-to which he ardently lends his support-will be undermined if the party is too closely associated with "a radical social agenda which would end a woman's right to choose, and mandate school prayer."
Specter correctly identifies the other candidates as being "captive to the demands of the intolerant right."
That sort of talk should sell well in the Republican Party, where one poll suggested 71 percent favor abortion rights. It should appeal particularly to people like Roberta Bumdrett, a veteran Massachusetts activist, who says, "Everyone I talk to says there is a place for a moderate-to-liberal Republican in this race."
But ask Bumdrett whether Specter fits the bill and she snorts, "Oh, come on. Give me a break. He isn't going to fly with women voters."
For all his efforts to identify himself as a moderate, Specter carries the burden of having been the relentless lead persecutor of Anita Hill when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee's 1991 hearings on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination. Specter's vitriolic examination of Hill-in which he accused her of committing perjury-drew comparisons with Joe McCarthy.
As Phillips says, "Specter's message of moderation might have some appeal if it was coming from someone else. But Specter's not going anywhere."
Another contender, California Governor Pete Wilson, is frequently identified as a moderate by his opponents and the pundits--Dornan goes so far as to call him "a flaming liberal."
But Wilson's moderation pretty much begins and ends with his support for legal abortion.
As governor of the nation's largest state, he started out by abandoning a pledge to support gay rights, and has gone on to champion the death penalty, three-strikes-and-you're-out punishment schemes, and the xenophobic Proposition 187 anti-immigration proposal. He now campaigns on a promise to wipe out affirmative action and to scrap most of the federal government in order to implement a 15 percent income-tax cut.
"These guys give new meaning to the word extreme," says consumer activist Ralph Nader. "Even the so-called moderates are pushing agendas that a Gerald Ford or a Richard Nixon would have dismissed as crazy."
Something profound has shifted in the Republican Party, Nader suggests. The stumbling, sometimes apologetic conservatism of the past has been replaced by an in-your-face, no-apologies approach. Forget about the strained intellectual arguments of a Jack Kemp. This new breed of Republicans owes more to Howard Stern and G. Gordon Liddy.
"Jack Kemp said he got out because it was going to be too brutal," says Dornan of the 1996 race. "I say it's going to be bloody exhilarating."
While Dole, Gramm, Specter, Buchanan, and Dornan all have reputations for rhetorical and ideological meanness, even "nice-guy" candidates such as Lugar have begun resorting to visceral appeals about the need for "root-canal" surgery on social programs and threats to re-invade Iraq.
Ann Stone, a veteran Republican strategist who heads Republicans for Choice, a moderate grouping that supports dropping the Party's anti-abortion stance, says, "There's a danger with some of these candidates that they'll go so far to the right that they'll end up falling off the edge of their flat earth."
Stone identifies herself, and people like her, as "round-earth Republicans." But in this year's race, none of the candidates, with the exception of Specter, seems willing to throw in with the round-earth crowd.
In fact, candidates who actually have a chance of winning the nomination--Dole, Gramm, Wilson, and possibly Alexander--are constantly jockeying for position not only with each other but with go-for-broke long shots such as Dornan and Keyes.
The candidates are playing a peculiar game of ideological chicken. When one contender stakes out a position in the right lane, the other candidates refuse to move toward the center. Instead, they're all lurching farther and farther right.
Thus, when conservative Gramm announces that he favors school prayer, the supposedly more moderate Dole declares that "government often seems to be the enemy of religion" and says he is willing to promote a school-prayer amendment to the Constitution. Then Keyes trumps them both by claiming flatly that "we don't have the right to separate church and state. We must respect the authority of God."
When Alexander says he is ready to shut down the federal agency he once headed--the Department of Education--Dole counters by announcing that not only will he shut down Education, he'll junk the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development as well.
When Specter tries to project himself as tough on crime, Pete "I will put the teeth back into the death penalty" Wilson announces he wants to end appeals by death-row inmates.
That's nothing, says Gramm. "If I become President, we're going to take out the air conditioning, take out the TV sets. We'll make our prisons industrial parks, with work six days a week, and at night they'll go to school. If we have to string up wire around every closed military base in America, we're going to do it."
When Dole and Gramm both say they are "absolutely" against abortion but don't know that the time is right for a constitutional amendment banning the procedure, Buchanan declares, "Any politician who will turn his back on the unborn child will turn his back on you." Then Dornan one-ups Buchanan with, "We can no longer go on killing 1.5 million babies in their mothers' wombs and expect God to bless this country." To which Keyes replies that he wants to ban not only abortion but premarital sex: "You should not be having babies out of marriage. And if you're not willing to do that, stay out of bed."
The extremism sweepstakes is being sponsored by religious conservatives, who frankly admit they are using their influence in early primary and caucus states to push the center of political gravity to the right.
Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition has ordered operatives in key states to withhold their support from any of the candidates until they get ironclad assurances that they will follow the group's anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights, anti-public-education agenda. He has openly threatened the group will not support a Republican ticket on which either the Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate supports abortion rights.
James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, a politically influential religious-right group based in Colorado, has told Republican chair Haley Barbour, "You should warn the Republican Presidential hopefuls that it will be impossible to skirt the moral issues in 1996."
The pressure already appears to be affecting national policy. Nodding to religious-right groups, Dole announced in April that he was considering using his position as Senate Majority Leader to block the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster as Surgeon General. Foster is despised by the Christian Coalition because he has acknowledged performing abortions.
Michael Dubke, executive director of the Ripon Society, a moderate Republican group, fears the impact of the religious right's pressure could grow during the course of the campaign. He says the religious right is likely to use its traditional strength in Iowa-where the Reverend Pat Robertson won a quarter of the caucus vote in 1988-to influence the entire Presidential race. With its first-in-the-nation caucuses, Iowa can make or break candidates in the fast-paced nomination fight.
"If Bob Dole or Phil Gramm fails to sign on with the right's agenda in Iowa, and then runs weaker than expected, Ralph Reed and his people will be saying, 'See, that's what happens if you cross us,' " argues Dubke. "If that happens, then I think you might very well see several of the candidates shift even further to the right."
Republican Ann Stone thinks the whole process could be disastrous for the Party. "If the rhetoric's too extreme by our candidates, I think voters may say, 'Look, we've got to balance off that conservative Congress by reelecting Clinton,' " she explains.
This notion is music to the ears of Clinton's advisers, who are already devising strategies that will allow their man to run as "a sensible alternative" to far-right extremism. Democratic National Committee head Christopher Dodd has even begun joking that Gramm would make a fine opponent.
Phillips, who accurately predicted the course of the 1992 Presidential race, warns against complacency on the part of Democrats, however. "There are a lot of X factors out there," he says. "It's dangerous to say Bill Clinton will have a walk to reelection against a rightwing Republican. Girl number eight could show up with a videotape. Whitewater could flare up. Ross Perot or Colin Powell-or someone else-could get in the race as an independent."
Is President Gramm a real possibility?
"I don't think you can rule that out," says Phillips. "Look, Clinton is weak, just as Jimmy Carter was weak in 1980. If you remember that year, a lot of people ruled out Reagan because they said he was too conservative. But look what happened when the votes were counted."
Even if Gramm doesn't prevail, the tenor of the overall debate is likely to move right, Phillips predicts. Just as conservatives are pushing the Republican primary dialogue far to the right, he says, so a conservative Republican nominee could pull Clinton further in that direction.
As scary as the Republican candidates are, Craig Butler of the Fund for New Priorities worries a lot more about the prospect of losing the center of political gravity. "The whole debate is skewing toward the right," he says. "It's not just the Republicans; among the Democrats there is a lot of me-too-ism. The Republicans may seem crazy to a lot of progressives, but right now they are setting the parameters of the discussion, and the parameters are getting further and further from reality."
National politics may be going the route of the Republican contest, where extremism is not a vice or virtue; it's a requirement.