The GOP at Risk: A Symposium on the Big Tent Strategy—Gary Bauer


Criticized recently for its flagging moral leadership, the Republican Party now oddly finds itself in the majority, but unable to marshal that majority behind significant change in governmental policy. But what, really, is lacking? Do the Republicans lack the ability to handle the practical side of politics or are they more in need of a hierarchy of principles to order and guide their political action?

Politics is a practical art: Only certain things are possible at any given time. The great politician, therefore, is one who tailors his political practice to fit his principles. Over time, that politician guides his constituency to adopt the very principles that have informed his practice from the beginning. That being said, not every coalition-building action is morally equivalent. The establishment of certain coalitions can tempt a politician to sacrifice his principles. Because some issues are more important than others, one wonders if it is some coalition that must be sacrificed on principle.

What politicians and their parties both need to realize is that such talk about principles is not a discussion of practical principles or what might broadly be called strategy. It is rather a discussion about our hope for political life: What are the goals that we want to achieve? What are the ends that we hope to obtain by means of politics?

In anticipation of the 1998 elections in November, Crisis invited several of the most influential members of the Republican Party to discuss the principles now at the center of that party’s political strategy. Formulated as a debate, with each of the participants free to address any aspect of the resolution, we proposed the following topic for their consideration: Resolved—the Big Tent strategy undermines the principles of the Republican Party.

Not surprisingly, a number of internal tensions appear in what follows. Ann Stone and Governor Pete Wilson, both concerned for party unity and the divisive nature of the abortion issue, believe a reduction in the national abortion rate is a good enough goal to keep everyone working together. Arguing that the right to life is a principle not susceptible to such policy judgments, Senator Rick Santorum maintains that a commitment to the legal protection of all human life, from conception to natural death, is a fundamental truth on which our public life should speak decisively.

For many of the participants, to quote Governor John Engler, “the task is to manage these competing forces with prudence.” If Republicans want to pass laws and change the political landscape, in other words, they must first be sure to protect their majority. That being said, the achievement of a majority must be directed toward some public good. For what good does the Republican Party stand?

—Samuel Casey Carter, For the Editors


Gary Bauer

president of the Family Research Council 

Given the way in which the term “Big Tent” was first coined in the context of abortion, the resolution must be answered in the affirmative. It originated in a 1989 speech by the late Lee Atwater, at the time chairman of the Republican National Committee. Atwater’s words had special weight, well beyond that of the usual RNC chairman, because everyone knew he was the closest political adviser to the newly elected president, George Bush.

In retrospect, Atwater’s proclamation that the Republican Party comprised a “Big Tent” on abortion can be seen as the Republican establishment’s removal of the right to life from the party’s set of core principles. The retreat was carefully defined. It would not affect President Bush’s pledge (first made to Ronald Reagan as the price for being on the 1980 national ticket) to uphold the new right to life plank in the platform. Bush would continue to cast anti-abortion vetoes whenever these became necessary. He would make no overt effort to alter the GOP platform language. He would continue to appoint judicial conservatives to the federal courts. On these and other issues important to pro-lifers, Bush kept his word.

But from 1989 on, it was understood that such a commitment to the right to life was to be a matter of individual option among Republican leaders. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s mildly pro-life Webster decision that same year, a decision that invited state elected officials to make their pro-life principles concrete, a number of GOP office-holders repudiated their previously held pro-life views. More often, the change came at the rhetorical level. Again and again, when asked about abortion, GOP leaders would begin their answer, “I’m pro-life,” which was invariably a prelude to an explanation of why retreat on the issue was necessary.

Today, I believe, the time for the Bush-Atwater tightrope walk is over. Republican voters, and the officials they elect to Congress and other offices, are more solidly pro-life than ever. So is the public, according to a New York Times poll taken on the recent 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The GOP establishment, however, particularly the bulk of our financial elites, are more determinedly pro-abortion than ever. The gulf is too wide to finesse, and it is time for our party’s identity crisis to be resolved. I myself am increasingly confident of the result.

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