After spending several weeks in deep hugger-mugger at the Republican Party platform committee this summer, the leaders of the Right wing of the GOP emerged triumphant. Their deeply beloved and totally useless Human Life Amendment was reaffirmed. The obnoxious statement of “tolerance” for the opinions of those who disagree with the amendment was excised. Language about immigration, fair trade, the Second Amendment, and other issues important to the Right, religious and otherwise, was approved. The Washington Post, reporting on the adoption of the platform the next day, seemed ready to be taken off to a nice quiet place in the country to recuperate from its neurotic angst over the American Right and its victory. “The Republican platform committee today approved a statement of party principles closer in tone and emphasis to the nationalism and domestic conservatism of Patrick J. Buchanan than the party’s presumptive nominee Robert J. Dole,” trembled The Post‘s Thomas Edsall. And, for once, the general staff of the legions of the Right was in agreement. “This is very Buchanan,” beamed Bay Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s sister and campaign chairman. “We could not be more pleased. This is much more of a populist, conservative Buchananesque platform than we ever dreamed, to be honest.” Other leaders of the right like Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Bauer, and Ralph Reed concurred.
Well, since we’re being honest, the truth is that the conservatives got suckered, as some of them began to glimpse in the next few days when speaker after speaker ascended the podium at the Republican convention to avoid, contradict, or simply ignore the platform that had just been adopted. By the time Mr. Dole was officially chosen as the party’s leader, The New York Times reported, some foes of abortion were mystified. “A lot of pro-life people are saying, ‘What’s going on here?'” whimpered one anti-abortion delegate, Mrs. Elaine Hawkins of San Antonio. “It’s like they’ve squished the issue out of existence. We know it’s there in print, but I don’t hear anybody talking about it.”
Nor was it only abortion that nobody talked about. “I haven’t read the platform and I’m not bound by it anyway,” Mr. Dole proudly announced to the press. The Post‘s David Broder reported the next week that “Dole, Speaker Newt Gingrich and party chairman Haley Barbour were comically eager to affirm that they paid the document so little heed they hadn’t even read it.” As for the central feature of the platform’s immigration plank, a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment or constitutionally valid legislation to end automatic U.S. citizenship for the children of illegal aliens born on American soil, former Rep. Vin Weber, a close adviser to Mr. Dole, let it be known that Mr. Dole simply didn’t support it. The Wall Street Journal‘s Al Hunt gleefully reported the next week that the party’s vice presidential nominee, Jack Kemp, was “horrified by the platform’s call to deny citizenship to children born in America of illegal immigrants.” By the end of the convention it was clear to everyone save those who wrap themselves in illusion that the conservative efforts to craft the party platform meant nothing. Inevitably, the lines of poet John Dryden crept into the mind: “All, all of a piece throughout: Thy chase had a beast in view; Thy wars brought nothing about; Thy lovers were all untrue.”
But actually something had been brought about. By engaging in the conflict over the meaningless platform, the conservatives allowed Mr. Dole to quell the incipient rebellion from the Right and to unify the party under his leadership. The convention began with Mr. Dole and the party establishment uncertain whether Pat Buchanan would endorse the final ticket or quit the GOP and run with Howard Phillips’ Taxpayers Party and thereby deny any possibility of victory in November to a party establishment that had ignored, insulted, and abused him and his 3 million supporters ever since he announced his candidacy. By the time the platform had been adopted, with considerable input from the Buchananites, that option was no longer possible, even if it had been desirable. By working with the platform committee, by writing a platform with which “we could not be more pleased,” the Buchananites and the Republican Right in general signed their own political death warrants, binding themselves to the party and the ticket, consigning themselves to political irrelevance, and ensuring that any walkout or rebellion they mounted thereafter would be universally regarded as simply one further confirmation of the fanaticism and sourness that their enemies habitually attribute to them.
If there was any doubt of the irrelevance of the Right to its own party, the selection of Mr. Kemp removed it. No other neo-conservative leader in the country commands as much of a political following (which is not to say that he necessarily commands much of a following), and no other major Republican leader is as much in thrall to neo-conservatism as a body of ideas and as an organized faction, as Mr. Kemp. Unable or unwilling to mount a campaign in the primaries, Mr. Kemp stayed out of the contest for the nomination and was widely regarded as politically defunct. His support for affirmative action in the face of the growing Republican and conservative consensus to abolish it; his support for NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, unlimited “free trade” in general; his foreign policy of global democratism; his enthusiastic and fiscally catastrophic attachment to Big Government, as evidenced by his enlargement of the Housing and Urban Development Department in the Bush administration; his bottomless zeal for supporting the full measure of civil rights laws and policies; and his fierce hostility to any suggestion of immigration control in the face of growing popular and intellectual disenchantment with immigration all placed him on the Left of the Republican Party and in bitter opposition to its Buchananite, America First, culture war, nativist, protectionist, populist, and new nationalist Right that actually entered the primaries and seemed for a while to be on the eve of victory. The choice of Mr. Kemp as Bob Dole’s running mate and the resurrection of the representative leader of a political persuasion and faction that has no tangible popular support outside the Beltway was a calculated kick in the groin to the Right by the party’s leadership, a kick to which the right, after its platform triumph, was unable to respond with the only weapon it had left, the threat of secession from the party; and if this ticket wins the race against President Clinton, its victory will almost certainly mean the political extinction of the kind of conservatism the Buchananite Right represents.
If the ticket wins, Mr. Kemp as Vice President will be positioned for his own race for the White House in 2000 and, barring a disaster in the Dole administration, will have the inside track to the nomination. Even if the ticket loses, it is not difficult to anticipate what the neo-conservative and even the liberal line will be — that Mr. Buchanan and the Right stuck the ticket with an “extremist” platform that simply frightened away mainstream voters, that the decrepit Mr. Dole was not supportive of Mr. Kemp’s pollygoggle policy-wonkism and refused to unleash his running mate’s bottomless genius, that Mr. Kemp was the unsung hero of the 1996 ticket and ought to be given another opportunity to crush the narrow-minded Mr. Buchanan and to redefine the American Right in his own generous Lincolnesque image. Win or lose, then, the real victor to emerge from the byzantine backstairs politics of San Diego this summer will be Mr. Kemp and his Beltway cabal, who will proceed to re-define the American Right in their own terms and to back up their re-definition with political power.
For the Buchananite Right, the Christian Right, the Old Right, the Hard Right, the paleo-conservatives, and the paleo-libertarians, that will mean political oblivion, the final disappearance of any serious hope of influencing American politics in a direction away from the gargantuan state and the state’s alliance with both overclass and underclass against the middle class, or in a direction toward dismantling the warfare-welfare state, controlling immigration, reversing the erosion of national sovereignty, withdrawing from the pursuit of a globalist-imperialist foreign policy, and restoring a Eurocentric cultural order. It is one thing to lose an election, but as long as the losers are able to define the opposition, they retain the possibility of eventual victory. It is another thing to lose the opposition itself, to allow not only the victors but the losers themselves to define the terms of debate and the rules of the game. That is what the election, and maybe even the defeat, of the Dole-Kemp ticket this year would mean — that it is not the real Right that defines the opposition and sets the framework of the political discourse but the fake Right the Dole-Kemp ticket represents.
Of course, the rank and file Republican and the average citizen who votes for this ticket against Mr. Clinton cannot be blamed for his choice. Supporting the re-election of an administration led by one of the most repulsive men in American political history, mottled with the gangrene of corruption and sexual license and emitting the stench of tyranny, is not a choice most decent Americans should welcome, regardless of their political beliefs. But the fact is that the re-election of Bill Clinton might just be better for the nation and the only political forces able to salvage it than the victory of Mr. Dole and his running mate. The evils of the Clinton era should not be the trump card by which a rival party, today almost indistinguishable from the Democrats in their basic worldview and policies, is allowed to win a rigged deal.
At least since the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the real Right in the United States has voted for the Republican ticket on the grounds that it was choosing the lesser of two evils, and every four years we hear the same refrain from the ticket’s apologists — that the country just can’t survive Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, or Bill Clinton. But the truth is that of course it does survive and that the victories of the centrist Republicans who are these villains’ foes never make any difference anyway. Conservatives, having worked themselves into a dither over the iniquity of the Democrats, fall for this argument in every election, and then, within a few years or a few weeks, are amazed to find that the centrist Republican candidates whom they have put in power have betrayed and ignored them once again. The argument that we just have to support the lesser of two evils to avoid destruction is merely a formula by which evil is perpetuated in power and men and measures that are not evil are driven into perpetual exile; if the real Right listens to the formula yet again this year, it may be the last time it will enjoy the opportunity to hear it.
Yet it may be that I exaggerate. Neither Mr. Dole nor Mr. Kemp is able to represent the social forces that are beginning to rally around the real Right that they managed to snooker at their convention this year, and it remains questionable if Mr. Dole’s endless rehearsals of his adventures in a war that ended more than fifty years ago and Mr. Kemp’s childish bubble-chatter about utopias of high technology, unlimited growth, and everybody getting rich will speak to the people whom Whittaker Chambers called “the plain men and women of the nation,” who see their material wealth, their communities, their nation, their people, and their civilization vanishing before their eyes. Even if they are still unwilling to embrace what the real Right offers and even if no such alternative is available to them, they may yet find alternatives in Ross Perot, the Libertarian Party, the Taxpayers Party, and other vehicles that are reasonable facsimiles and which come a lot closer than what the two “major parties” offer.
It may be, then, that what we saw in San Diego this summer and what we are seeing now in the race between Huey, Dewey, and Louie is simply the last gasp of a dying political system that is designed to ensure that no alternative and no challenge to the interests it protects can emerge. Unable to attract a mass political following on their own merits, those interests must advance candidates like Mr. Dole, Mr. Kemp, and Mr. Clinton, who offer the best counterfeits of the real Right they can concoct, and Middle Americans are increasingly biting hard on the currency they peddle to test its real value. It may be that the present two-party domination of national politics is now so exhausted that Middle Americans will soon emerge in their own party with their own agenda and consciousness unencumbered by the trivia and distractions of the major parties. But what ought to have become clear this summer is that that agenda and consciousness cannot be advanced by either the established leadership of the Republican Party or even by the party’s Right wing that allows itself to be swindled for a meaningless platform that the leadership despises.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in November 1996.