News & Politics

The 'Managers' in the Bedroom

They were called the House "managers." Even that accident of nomenclature is reinforcing the contradictions that may soon lead to the greatest national political realignment of our time. For impeachment is the ultimate "wedge issue," and this wedge is aimed directly at the heart of the Grand Old Party, separating its intrusive, moralistic "managers" from its off-my-back libertarians.

They were called the House "managers." Even that accident of nomenclature is reinforcing the contradictions that may soon lead to the greatest national political realignment of our time. For impeachment is the ultimate "wedge issue," and this wedge is aimed directly at the heart of the Grand Old Party, separating its intrusive, moralistic "managers" from its off-my-back libertarians.The Democrats are mere spectators in this fratricidal conflict. Nevertheless, it cannot have escaped the attention of Democratic theorists, who have been searching for just such a wedge ever since the Southern/rural and ethnic/urban wings of their own party were estranged by similarly unbridgeable contradictions.

The disintegration of that unlikely Democratic alliance was part of the process that created the now-untenable Republican congressional majority.The Republican Party in the past decade has been an uneasy alliance of the two dominant and internally inconsistent strains of American political and social history. On the one side are the old states' rightists, the free-marketeers and social laissez-faireans, the libertarians. Subspecies include right-to-arms and privacy absolutists, anti-tax zealots and, even further to the fringes, the "leave-me-alone, don't-tread-on-me" rural utopians.

By all rational measures, women's right to control their own bodies and gays' right to privacy in their bedrooms ought to fit comfortably into that big tent of laissez-faire interests. But anti-choice abortion sentiment and anti-gay rhetoric are cornerstones of the Republican catechism because of the other strain of party ideologues: the theocrats. The Christian rightists' primary political aim is the imposition of its moral absolutism - not to mention Christianity itself - on all levels of American government. They have made abortion, school prayer, sexual practices and centralized moral control - extending from electronic communications to classroom textbook choice - the foundation of their political agenda.Contradictions such as these -- central control of even the most intimate citizen behavior versus the right to be left alone -- may be extreme, but alliances are what politics is all about.

Common social ties, commonly identified enemies and strategic political alliances can paper over such ideological chasms ... for a time. Such a confluence of interests and history has helped the Republicans for years to maintain their unity by painting the Democrats as the party of big government hell-bent on controlling our private lives, whether the issue was enforcement of civil rights, assurance of equity in the distribution of social benefits or direction of the economy.But always lurking just offstage was the Republicans' own vulnerability.

In recent elections it has been fraying the party's tenuous electoral coalition. Women, troubled by the party's religious absolutism, have voted by lopsided margins for Democrat politicians. Racial and ethnic minorities - soon to become majorities in some states of the Southwest - have rejected those of the party's laissez-faire social policies that serve to perpetuate past inequities. And most of those who take the trouble to vote have benefited from the years of economic good fortune that have been sustained, at least in part, by effective "management" -- central control -- of the economy, although the president's own role in that management is open to dispute.Now the Republican vulnerability has been laid open like an ugly wound with the partisan impeachment of the president.

The party-line vote in the House of Representatives and the largely partisan alignment of sentiment in the Senate makes clear that the Republicans in Congress "own" this issue; they cannot evade the consequences, whether beneficial or not.The essence of the Clinton prosecution is application of an absolutist moral code in a civil proceeding. The issue is not one of right or wrong.

All the partisans are agreed that the president's behavior was very, very wrong.Rather, this has become a dispute on the necessity of removing from power a government official for a moral transgression. In the House of Representatives, one Republican after another demanded some statement of "atonement" or "contrition" from the president in exchange for any consideration of leniency. One congressman stated his demand this way: "I want him to be a man.

I want him to be a stand-up guy."The constitutional imperative to "be a stand-up guy"? Hardly. This is morals we're talking about here, not constitutional law. Nowhere does our august governing document breathe a word about atonement or contrition.Inherent in such religious rhetoric is an abandonment of a major part of the Republican constituency - those who value above all else the freedom from central control, the freedom, if you will, to engage in a private dalliance without the moral deviation becoming an "affair of state."Thus, the "managers" - those central controllers, whether political or religious - have dominated the debate. But in their God-given ardor, they have ignored the political reality that has assured them of a prominent seat in the halls of government.

They have abandoned their uneasy alliance with those in their own party back home who want government to just get the hell off their backs.Polls over the past few months have made clear that voters do indeed notice the contradiction. Overwhelmingly they have made a distinction between the president's private moral transgressions and his official actions. The voters have found an accommodation that the Republicans' complicated history will not allow them to accept.So the president's transgressions unwittingly exposed the contradictions at the core of the Republican alliance.

The Grand Old Party may have found its nemesis not in the Democrats but in its own tortured soul. This would not be the first political party to be fatally wounded by a deadly attraction to Bedroom Politics.Peter Y. Sussman, a Berkeley, Calif., writer and editor, is the co-author of "Committing Journalism" (W.W. Norton)

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PNS contributor Peter Y. Sussman is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and editor currently working on a book of the letters of another great American provocateur, Jessica Mitford.