DETROIT--Curious how the unwavering mood of most Republicans gathered for the national convention in the Motor City is unswerving conservatism. Sensing a coast-to-coast crystallization of right-wing thought, GOP delegates seek to ride the tide to the Oval Office. While the rarified atmosphere of a convention can blur vision, it appears that today's smart money is on Ronald Reagan to win the presidential sweepstakes.
With Reagan entrenched as the party's nominee, the Republicans' rightist elements are eagerly seizing control of the party. To a large extent, as scrutiny of the platform developed last week reveals, they already have. But they have achieved this newfound surpremacy at the expense of party moderates, who have been shunted rudely aside.
Republican moderates, in the minority here, have responded in kind; they have rallied behind the former California governor, stretching their principles in the name of party unity. Of course, all Republicans still have one overriding goal in common--ousting President Carter from power. Toward that end, the party is determined to stage a play without drama here, to write a story with a predictable ending. It has succeeded thus far.
If Reagan prevails in November, he will have forged an unlikely coalition, adding disaffected Democrats and Independents deterred from voting for John Anderson and Carter, to the conservative elements he has long represented. Reagan's personal characteristics, his seeming steady hand and gleaming image, make such a partnership viable.
It should come as no surprise to liberal Democrats that the country has waxed conservative. Citizens see an America held hostage in Iran, helpless in Afghanistan, held in disrespect by Allies and hated by enemies. They have less money to make ends meet, see big government as a convenient target for contempt, and want a tax cut as an expedient remedy. The country seems less prosperous, less in control.
Playing and preying on the insecurity of individuals, the GOP seeks to capitalize on Carter's numerous mistakes and broken promises. But in riding the crest of this wave to Washington, the Republicans risk swamping America's future. These are the politics of reaction, short-term quick-fixes made all the more attractive by a bumbling president who has himself sought to react to Patrick Cadell's latest survey. As Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said this week, "We couldn't have done it without Jimmy Carter."
Instead of preparing measured, judicious responses to Carter's gaffes the GOP has proved content the last two weeks to go with the Big Mo. It has allowed the ultra-conservative elements to exert influence disproportionate to their support among the electorate. Former president Gerald R. Ford was introduced by a film whose soundtrack featured the melancholy ode "What I Did for Love." In his speech, he insisted he was not an elder statesman; he pledged that he would be active in campaigning to defeat Carter while failing to mention whether he would try to move the party back to a more responsible, centrist position.
For Reagan truly to represent the country in the office of the presidency, he must straddle some issues. If he is elected on the basis of his present stances--the ones enunciated repeatedly here, strikingly in the realm of economic policy and anti-Soviet policy--he may wind up tied to programs that would severely hinder any sort of progress toward resolving long-term dilemmas. Of course, much of the rhetoric spouted this week is bluster, and the delegate selection process tends naturally to send loyal hardliners as representatives to a convention. But beneath the bluster must be some indication that Reagan will govern effectively if elected, with an eye cocked to the wishes and interests of all Americans. And some signs that the moderate viewpoint will not be overlooked.
In its attempt to organize a tightly-organized convention, the GOP has projected an image of unity behind the banner of conservatism. By dint of the overwhelming majority of right-wingers gathered, the Republicans have demonstrated a remarkable intolerance for differing perspectives. By systematic suppression of dissent, the party is unwittingly undermining rather than reinforcing the precepts of democracy.
TO FURTHER THE COMMON CAUSE of reoccuping the White House, the GOP was willing to put its differences of four years ago behind it. The nearly consummated Reagan-Ford marriage would have provided the Republicans with an imposing, if not unbeatable, team. While several observers Wednesday night wondered whether the drawn-out back room bargaining was evidence of Reagan's indecision, others speculated the excitement-- like everything else here--may have been deliberately staged in the former California governor's finest dramatic tradition. Reagan's eventual withdrawal of concessions to Ford, while perhaps in the best interest of the presidential office, again represented a refusal to deal with moderate Republican forces.
Even the choice of George Bush, merely one in a long parade of former Reagan adversaries who chose not to disagree with the GOP's candidate or its platform this week, should not prove significant. A second choice, Bush will probably parrot Reagan rhetoric since his positions during his own campaign were no less simplistic than Reagan's. Bush, too, will be drenched in the "populist" flood of conservatism.
If this is the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, then the road must be perilously paved. If moderates must resort to strident speeches to appease the party, then the party may push itself too far right to appease the nation. If party homogeneity is necessary to subvert the tyranny of manifold conflicting interest groups, then the political process needs a doctor.
Is the opinion of GOP moderates anathema to conservatives? In an atmosphere of reaction, tacitly strengthened by public sentiment, it is. And as the moderates--who pose the greatest threat to rigid conservatism--are co-opted by this convention, the country's future dims. Amid the anti-Carter rhetoric that can carry the November election, there must be some strands of reason, some sign that conservatives are not uncompromising. This week in Detroit, there have been no such indications. Maybe that's why conservatives sport smiles wide than Carter's 1976 grin. The roots of the slogan, "Together--A New Beginning," are found not in optimism, however, but in intolerance--a profound cynicism about anything classified as non-conservative.
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