The Republican National Convention’s “Big Tent”

Get ready: next week is RNC week! (“Republican National Convention,” in NYC, naturally.) You can be sure that most of the the European publications that I cover here will be taking a look, and, just as on the occasion of the DNC about a month ago, I’ll be passing along to you some of the most interesting coverage and opinions. (As for the official EuroSavant position, I was lucky enough recently to find it summed up neatly elsewhere on the Net: “If I can FAKE it here . . . “ – see August 26.)

Belgium’s excellent De Standaard has already gotten a jump today on what that paper promises will be its own extensive coverage of the convention throughout next week, with a preview-article by Evita Neefs that I found quite impressively enlightening (A Miss, a Democrat, and Some Blacks in Madison Square Garden).

In a obviously generic way, that title sums up the speakers the public will be presented with at this convention, i.e. a diverse array designed to breathe life back into the President’s self-description as a “compassionate conservative” as well as to bolster the image of the Republican Party as a “big tent,” with room inside for very many. (That “Democrat,” by the way, will be Zell Miller, apostate U.S. Senator from Georgia. The “Miss” is Miss America 2003.) Yet Neefs takes as her point-of-departure the thesis that that is not at all the constituency upon which George W. Bush has relied in the past to be elected president (or at to least get enough votes to be able to take it to the Supreme Court – but let’s not get into that again), and upon which he is mainly relying to be elected come next November. Rather, that constituency is the “New Right,” or mainly conservative, evangelical Christians, who among other things can be identified by their view that writing a prohibition of same-sex marriage into the American Republic’s founding document is a perfectly proper and desirable thing to do.


Neefs offers an abbreviated but illuminating history of that New Right movement, tracing it back to the Republican Party’s nomination of Barry Goldwater for president back in 1964 and Goldwater’s strategy of orienting his campaign towards what he assumed was a “hidden conservative majority” in America that was waiting for just the sort of true conservative candidacy that he offered (among his slogans: “A Choice, Not an Echo”) to support. Goldwater lost that election on a massive scale; nonetheless, this “hidden majority” strategy was not totally discredited, but instead lay dormant for a couple of decades until a Republican presidential candidate came along that was able to find that “hidden majority” and draw it into politics: Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s ascendence to the presidency also marked the coming-of-age of this “New Right” political movement that henceforth would provide the core of the Republicans’ constituency. As Neefs describes it, it was constructed along the twin poles of 1) Evangelical Christians, exponents of so-called “family values,” who were propelled into politics by their aversion to what they saw as American society’s drift into immorality during the 1960s, and 2) White Southerners, who were attracted into what once had been the “Party of Lincoln” after a Democratic president (Lyndon B. Johnson) enfranchised black citizens a bit too much for their tastes with the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act.

Neefs terms George W. Bush “Ronald Reagan’s heir” for riding this same “New Right” coalition into power. But the “compassionate conservative” label which Bush will be trying to resurrect at the convention must be understood as denoting a quite different electoral approach than “hidden majority.” In the latter case, you’ve found (or at least you go searching for) your fellow “true-believers” out there, and you rest assured that if you can connect with them and get them to the polls, that’s all you need to win; in the former, you don’t think you can afford to take the chance of relying only on their support, and instead try to broaden your electoral appeal as widely as possible.


It’s that latter strategy which, according to Neefs, will define what next week’s RNC will be all about – showcasing the Republican Party as that “big tent” rather than some “church” of only “true believers.” (She mentions in particular the “Log Cabin Republicans” group of homosexual advocates, who are notably pleased at the convention’s speakers line-up. Personally, after Bush joined Congressional Republican leaders only recently to push that constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage, I fail to understand how such a group can continue to exist within the Republican Party – isn’t that sort of like having a “pork lover’s caucus” within the Muslim Brotherhood?) Unfortunately, many of those New Right “true believers” have gotten angry about this intention to sideline them in New York. They’re also angry at the Bush/Cheney strategy of drawing up the party platform early, and so presenting it to the convention as a fait accompli, with no room for discussion. (See ParaPundit for how campaign officials worked in this way to incorporate several rather non-conservative elements into that party platform, concerning immigration and other subjects as well.) Neefs quotes leading conservative Paul Weyrich’s recent remarks to the New York Times: “If it bothers the president to be seen with conservatives at the convention, it could also bother conservatives to be seen with the president on election day.” Bush officials are apparently so alarmed at this anger that they issued a second speakers list for the convention, including rather more of the red-meat New Right figures that these conservatives will want to listen to. But it seems that none of these will be scheduled to speak when there is live television coverage of the proceedings.

Could the unthinkable really happen? Could that New Right get so annoyed as to repudiate George W. Bush politically? Neefs points out that that is possible – at least in the form of many of those conservative voters not bothering to show up at the polls next November 2. She claims that many are mad at the President already because they believe he acted half-heartedly in pushing that constitutional amendment, that if he had tried harder it would have been passed by Congress (only to be sent to the individual states for ratification, of course). On the other hand, these voters have little other choice than Bush/Cheney, and so also “compassionate conservatism” – if that turns out to actually mean anything this time around.

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