Not the Stupid Party
When I got the first mailing from Rick Lazio's campaign here in New York, I thought I had better pay attention to the man. I then went on thinking that for several days, without actually doing anything. I should read the papers with closer attention, I told myself; I should look up Lazio's voting record; I should chat about him with the genial old fellow in the next street who chairs my local Republican Club (Lazio's district is adjacent to ours). Of course, I never did any of that. There was always something more pressing. At last, after a week or so, knowing nothing about Lazio but that he was running against Mrs. Clinton, I sent him $100 anyway.
A lot of Republicans are of the same mind. Lazio? Not very inspiring. George W? Bit of an airhead. Cheney? Over the hill. But wait — who are they running against? Hillary? Al Gore? Janet Reno? Hey, pass that envelope! I am told that money has been pouring into Lazio's campaign in fifties and hundreds — much of it, I am sure, from people who wouldn't recognize him in the street.
Has there ever been an election in which the negative vote was so large, so grimly determined to vote? I have Republican neighbors who, if they should chance to fall off a ladder the week before the general election and break both arms and both legs, would insist on being carried to the polling station on a stretcher. There'd be no shortage of willing bearers, either. Sure, I can remember the Reagan years, and the seething, spitting hatred my liberal friends felt for the man and his administration. That kind of thing was pretty much concentrated in the intellectual classes, though. A lot of people disagreed with Reagan's politics, but to really hate him you needed a Ph.D. The disgust and loathing this current administration generates in a wide swathe of the population is something else. It's not enough to win an election, but it sure is a major asset.
It is therefore to the Republican Party's great credit that this deep current of negative emotion has, for the most part, been diverted away from Philadelphia this week. The convention managers know that the thirty per cent of us who detest the Clintons and all their works can be depended on, that the thirty per cent who love the man are not worth pursuing, and that the remaining forty per cent of the electorate are people who dislike displays of strong political emotion more than they like or dislike any candidate. The managers have communicated this wisdom to the delegates, who have responded like good soldiers. When Colin Powell called on them to support affirmative action, they cheered! Not all of them, to be sure — not many of them, perhaps — but enough for it to sound like cheering. (Look, nobody booed.) At that point I knew Al Gore was in major trouble.
It is a commonplace among conservatives that we are not very good at politics because we do not, in our innermost hearts, think it is really important. Certainly there is some truth in this. An analysis of the daily conversation and activities of congresspersons and cabinet officers would, I am sure, show that Republicans have politics on their minds much less than Democrats, and that we read more novels, attend more concerts, have more children and play more sports than Democrats, too. Yet this week's convention shows that with decent leadership we can march in ranks and files towards the enemy guns, in good order and in good cheer, well trained and well drilled, doing what must be done to advance the broad general principles of our party. The other self-deprecating commonplace, that we are the Stupid Party, surely cannot stand against the determination, precision and skill with which this convention has been put together.
The best index of general health, my trainer tells me, is not the degree to which you can exert yourself, but how swiftly you can recover from an exertion. If you date the collapse in the appeal of the old Democratic Party from Lyndon Johnson's last administration, it took them a quarter-century to get back on their feet with a message that could win the Presidency (taking the Carter interlude to have been a mere spasm, an aberration). Here, in just eight years, the Republican Party has been re-tooled twice into a winning configuration: once by the Gingrich revolutionaries, now again by the Bush team. This could not have been done without a good bedrock of widely shared beliefs, a cadre of highly talented people, and the intelligence, open-mindedness and courage to be constantly examining and refashioning methods of presentation, and to be learning from mistakes. The Stupid Party? I don't think so.