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Jewish World Review July 31, 2000 /28 Tamuz, 5760

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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I'll Cry if I Want To -- LIKE THE TORIES in Britain, the Republicans in the US are spooked by their 1980s glory days. Stateside, the party tendency has been to play it safe by choosing well-known personalities from the Republican past.

Hence this week's disconcerting choice of Dick Cheney to be Governor George W Bush's running mate. What, after all, other than a desperate desire to play it safe could have driven the Bush team into deluding themselves that naming a second Yale oil man from Texas would add value to the presidential ticket?

Whether the Grand Old Party-or any party-can prosper by simply sticking to old names will be one of the fundamental questions at this week's Philadelphia convention. There is particular concern as to whether taxes, trade, smaller government and other issues key to US economic growth play large enough roles in a backward looking and image-obsessed party.

All the more useful then to find the uneasy Republican soul parsed in a new book, "It's My Party: A Republican's Messy Love Affair with the GOP" by Peter Robinson.

A more loyal paramour than Mr Robinson would be hard to find. During years as Ronald Reagan's speechwriter, he confesses, he "gave his heart" to the president, whom he labels, without irony, "the largest and most magnificent American of the second half of the twentieth century."

The irony Mr Robinson saves for the GOP itself, which he eviscerates as "old, fusty, and hopelessly waspy," and which, he says, suffers at least three potentially fatal maladies.

The GOP misunderstands its base. Until recently, Republicans consisted mainly of two groups: farmers and well-to-do Northerners. (Mr Robinson himself comes out of the latter class: his hometown, little Vestal, New York, he describes as a "tribal encampment" of Republicans.)

Today, though, things have changed. The South, for whom the rights-obsessed Democrats became "too liberal", is now largely Republican. Indeed, Southerners have come to dominate the GOP. "If when I was a boy the GOP's favourite anthem was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' says Mr Robinson, "today the GOP is whistling Dixie."

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Yet the old Reaganite Republican guard has been unhappy about this change, and slow to recognise its importance. It also, according to Mr Robinson, fails to appreciate Southern Republicans' political culture: that these are the kind of people "that think abortion should be restricted while guns are made available and not the other way around".

He relates a typical Republican joke:

"Question: What do you call the hillbillies who appeared in the movie 'Deliverance'?

Answer: Fellow Republicans.

Such disdain, Mr Robinson points out, naturally costs the GOP; it needs to take "family values" and gun freedom seriously, and not hold them, as it often has done, at arm's length.

Changing demographics are hurting the GOP. The party's voters are mainly white Christians of North European ancestry. Yet these are a dwindling group. Today 40 per cent of New York City's population is foreign-born; post-millennial California will have more Hispanics and blacks than whites. There is little future for a party of golfers and Episcopalians.

The media hates the Republicans.

An overwhelming majority of the media votes for Democrats. A Roper Center study found 4 per cent of American reporters and news bureau chiefs in Washington DC were registered as Republicans; 50 per cent were registered Democrats. The media's coverage, says Mr Robinson, tends to reflect their political bias.

Perhaps even more important, Hollywood disdains the GOP and its small government vision.

Mr Robinson has some interesting insights into why screenwriters and stars feel this way. "Because their money comes to them so easily, people in Hollywood tend to demonstrate the same traits that people who inherit their wealth tend to demonstrate. Feeling guilty about having so much, they attempt to absolve themselves because they support the Democrats."

As for the puzzle of why these high earners support tax hikes that hit them hardest, Mr Robinson quotes a friend's illuminating explication:

"So they support higher taxes that working people will have to make sacrifices to pay. So what? People in Hollywood will be among the richest people in the country no matter how high taxes go." No wonder Democratic fundraisers are mounted by names like Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Barbara Streisand and Harrison Ford, while the GOP has to content itself with Bo Derek and Pat Boone.

Fortunately, at least for GOP supporters, Mr Robinson offers a few cures. He suggests for example that embracing its Southern cousins, and taking their gun-touting, family-oriented ways seriously would go a long way toward alleviating the Party's Dixie problem. In its choice of two Texans for the presidential ticket, the Republican National Committee already seems to be taking up his advice.

On the question of gaining ethnic diversity, Mr Robinson points out that the party has a natural advantage here: its tradition, dating back to the anti-slavery Abolition movement, of being "the party of the little man." Hispanics and even many blacks have shown that they will become Republican if issues are cast in a way they can support. In California, for example, four in ten Hispanic voters backed the Republican Proposition 227, a plan to end bilingual education in public schools, to victory. This was even though the received wisdom in America has been that Hispanics "always" support government-funded bilingual education. The change came about because many Hispanic families decided Republicans were right; it was better for kids to learn in English from the beginning.

Other school reforms, notably the largely-Republican voucher movement, have also been shown to draw minorities. Black families hope that using vouchers to attend private schools will give their children a chance to compete globally, to score well on the same tests given children in Japan or Singapore. And middle-class members of minority groups in particular care very much about issues that have been traditionally viewed as "white" and "Republican" such as tax cuts.

Not that Mr Robinson can work miracles. On the issue of the biased media, for example, he can come up with no serious nostrum. The GOP is therefore likely to remain, as he puts it, "uncool".

Still, "It's My Party" advances a crucial theme that the marketers in Philadelphia would be wise to take seriously: that issues matter more than familiar faces. Republicans, Mr Robinson reminds readers, stand for three policy positions. "Self-reliance, limited government, and respect for Judeo-Christian moral tradition."

A ticket listing old names won't itself convince voters. Only strong content-tax cuts, programmes to make American schools competitive, more "family values" legislation-will get the party hopping again.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Financial Times