Party Poopers

Why the Republicans deserved to lose


I told you so. The party that hates America will lose. The party that imagines no positive future, offers no "vision thing," will lose. The party that thinks it is better than the American people, that makes large segments of the voting public believe they are its enemy, that convinces people it wants the government to boss them around and destroy the things they love, will lose.

On November 3, that party was Republican. The GOP went down to humiliating defeat, losing close race after close race, plus many that weren't supposed to be close. The party lost its solid grip on the South and collapsed in California. It managed to lose seats in the House, an extraordinary result that even Democratic pundits failed to predict.

And it deserved to lose. Republicans sold out their economic base, invested all their hopes in scandals involving a president not on the ballot, and ran as the party of scolds, pork, and gloom. No wonder their voters stayed home.

This election was a test of the notion that Republicans can scorn anyone who talks about freedom, treat issues as matters of bribery rather than principle or vision, alternate between patronizing and ostracizing immigrants and women, regularly denounce American culture, and generally act obnoxiously toward the country they supposedly represent–and still win, because the Democrats are worse and Clinton is a sleaze.

That strategy might work if Democrats weren't savvy politicians. But the resolute "party of government" has been recruiting moderate candidates, and even left-wing Democrats have altered their messages. Hence, California has Governor-elect Gray Davis styling himself the forward-looking centrist. Some of the new Democratic moderates may even mean it.

Those great new Republican moral crusades, against gambling and medical marijuana, were resoundingly repelled. Democrats took governorships in South Carolina and Alabama–in the Bible Belt–by promising lotteries to fund education; they sold the idea as a voluntary "tax" that would compete with Georgia's cross-border lottery. The idea united good ol' boys and girls who want to have fun and upscale voters who want better schools and low taxes. Their opponents called gambling a sin and stopped there. Californians, meanwhile, voted overwhelmingly to allow Indian reservations to offer video poker.

As for medical marijuana, the five-out-of-five successful initiatives were only part of the story. As attorney general, Dan Lungren defied California's Prop. 215 to crusade against co-ops supplying cancer and AIDS patients with marijuana. The first thing voters knew about Lungren the would-be governor was that he was anti-abortion–his opponent's message–but the second was that he wanted to take pot away from sick people. You could read that in Doonesbury. Contempt for the law, the electorate, and the gravely ill did Lungren no good at the ballot box. (Neither did his late, tepid, cowardly support for anti-immigrant Prop. 187 in 1994, back when conventional wisdom decreed that nativism would lead Republicans to a bright future.)

The biggest candidate story of the day was the victory of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the libertarian-talking former pro wrestler elected governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket. Ventura beat not only the Republican but the day's most self-promoting paternalist, Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III, who had used his attorney general post to crusade nationally against cigarettes and Internet gambling.

None of this means that the public has somehow embraced a consistent–or even Ventura-style semi-consistent–libertarianism. Gun control is still popular in many places, Californians raised cigarette taxes by 50 cents a pack and imposed higher rates on snuff and cigars, and voters have trouble differentiating between "education" and the teachers unions.

But there are lessons in this election for politicians that go beyond the spin of "some agenda beats no agenda," the suggestion, courtesy of religious right leaders Gary Bauer and Randy Tate, that any Republican agenda would have been good enough.

1) Have a sense of proportion. Gambling is innocent fun, a form of escapist entertainment enjoyed mostly by salt-of-the-earth people who lead responsible lives. Demonizing it makes you sound like a lunatic. Marijuana is a mild drug with few harmful side effects, even when consumed purely for recreational purposes. Persecuting desperately ill people who use marijuana to relieve symptoms of their illnesses, especially when that use is legal, undercuts the credibility of law enforcement. And it makes you sound not only lunatic but cruel.

2) Be principled rather than partisan. Too many Republicans treat such serious questions as education reform and defense spending primarily as ways to attack Democratic constituencies or pander to their own. They do not make the case for the public interest, because they do not see the world in those terms. The public senses their unsavory motives–to destroy the teachers unions, for instance, rather than improve education–and gets the creeps. And Republicans lose the chance to explain what may indeed be good policies.

3) Make distinctions. If you listen to Republican spokesmen on television, all you hear of American popular culture–music, movies, television, even advertising–is that it is a consistent source of evil. But popular culture is as rich and varied as the people who consume it (also known as voters). To criticize it intelligently, you must also know it, understand its appeal, and find the praiseworthy as well as the bad. And you must appreciate that didacticism is not the soul of art. Too many Republicans use popular culture only to signal their alienation from the country they seek to govern.

4) Love America. Republicans have lost their appreciation of the American spirit of enterprise, adventure, creativity, and individualism. That's why they went wrong on immigration, which they saw as an act of invasion and freeloading rather than an affirmation of opportunity, enterprise, and hope. It's also why such visible spokesmen as Bill Bennett go around denouncing TV commercials that say, "Sometimes you've got to break the rules." The inability to distinguish between morality and mindless conformity corrodes genuine virtue. It celebrates obedience over conscience and bureaucracy over entrepreneurship. It's also Election Day suicide. America is not a nation built by people who deferred to authority. Republicans used to know that.

These are not libertine positions. They say nothing in defense of perjury or sordid affairs with interns. They offer plenty of room for moral judgments–indeed, by requiring distinctions and proportionality, they demand a more serious morality. What they don't do is uphold authority as a central political value or insult the character and intelligence of voters. They don't treat government as something done to us by our betters.

It's tough to top Bill and Hillary Clinton for finger-wagging sanctimony, insufferable elitism, and crass political pandering. But the Republicans have managed to do so. And for that they deserved to lose.