by Rod D. Martin
November 6, 1998

Last year, after “moderate” Republicans were whipped like dogs in off-year elections, I warned that if Republicans acted like Democrats, Americans would vote for real ones. This week they proved it.

The question is whether the GOP will figure it out in time.

Republicans still suffer from the belief that they are an ideological minority; yet the exact opposite is true. Americans generally, and Republicans specifically, have been moving dramatically right for two decades. Like Jesus, they want candidates who are either hot or cold: the lukewarm get spewed out of their mouths. While reporters wring their hands about the polarization of politics, the greatest complaint we hear from the masses continues to be that there isn’t enough difference between the two parties, that they are sick of voting for “Republicrats.” And when Republicans move left, supposedly to gain the center, they actually abandon the majority they created.

A short history lesson makes this clear. In the elections of 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1994, Republicans gave America a dramatic choice — a true vision — and were rewarded for doing so with unprecedented power. By contrast, in 1976, when Gerald Ford actually polled four points to the left of Jimmy Carter on election day; in 1990, when George Bush agreed to raise taxes; in 1992, when Bush purged the Reagan hold-overs from his inner circle and ran hard to the “center”; in 1996, when Bob Dole did his best to imitate George Bush; and now in 1998, when Republicans had no discernible message at all; in all of these races, Republicans were thrashed within an inch of their lives.

The 1998 numbers are especially instructive when examined in this light. Conservatives actually gained more seats than either the Republicans or Democrats, with fifteen pick-ups in the House (twelve Republican and three Democrat) plus Peter Fitzgerald in the Senate. Same-sex “marriage” initiatives lost in both Alaska and Hawaii by comfortable margins. Supposedly-moderate Republican Governors who won big actually had impressive records of state-level conservatism in every case, from Tommy Thompson’s school vouchers to George W. Bush’s mandated explicit, systematic phonics instruction to Mike Huckabee’s welfare reform successes and background as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

In the loss column were such men as Al D’Amato, a smarmy non-ideological pol; Arkansas’ Phil Wyrick, who managed to lose to one of the ten most vulnerable Congressmen in America by endlessly attacking without communicating any positive vision of his own; Dan Lungren, who by wading to the center managed to lose the California governorship for the first time in sixteen years; South Carolina Governor David Beasley, who issued an executive order instituting the Brady Act; and virtually every Republican in a competitive race whom Christie Whitman endorsed. What more can be said?

Election 1998 represents the culmination of a slow rot within GOP ranks best exemplified by this year’s near-revolt by James Dobson. True believers feel abandoned: they would rather stay home than vote for those they feel have betrayed them. It is the height of irony that the media — and the Republican leadership — so unanimously believed Monica Lewinsky could produce by herself a GOP tidal wave and a depressed Democrat base. Almost half of the Republican base is comprised of Christian conservatives; and they are increasingly unwilling to accept what they consider merely “the lesser of two evils.” On Tuesday, enough of them stayed home to seriously threaten the Republican majority, thus disproving the “moderate” mantra that “the Right has nowhere to go.”

If the Republican base had turned out, the GOP would have won five Senate seats and twenty-five House seats. Period. Yet we continue to hear the drumbeat of “moderation,” as if further alienating our own voters will help.

This is especially idiotic in light of the continuing trend toward low voter turnout. With only a third of Americans interested enough to vote, the certainty in any election is that the candidate who most energizes his base wins. Going to the “center” — usually shorthand for abandoning convictions — is utterly self-defeating: a compelling visionary will always beat a cautious “moderate,” for the simple reason that the wimp vote isn’t very big. Meanwhile, the people, sick of compromise, disgusted with politics-as-usual, will turn out for someone in whom they truly believe. But only if such a person exists.

They voted for a vision in 1994, but by 1998 that vision was completely obscured. Republicans dumped the tax cut without so much as a fight. They held no vote on national right-to-work legislation. They went along with Clinton’s “100,000 new teachers” budget-buster, designed entirely to pay off the Democratic teacher unions. They didn’t even try to close the Departments of Energy and Education or the National Endowment for the Arts, much less roll back oppressive gun control laws, repeal the tax code, or privatize the Social Security Ponzi scheme. There was no vision, and until there is some vision, the Republicans are going to perish.

You’d think people would learn. With only 729 days until the 2000 election, they better learn fast.