Santa Barbara News-Press, Commentary Section, March 18, 1998
To influence the March 10 special election for the congressional seat of the late Walter Capps, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent by political activists who have never seen a sea otter or a live oak. The magnitude of this outside interest suggests that the significance of the election extended beyond another seat in the House. The vote in this special election may presage a change of fortunes for the parties on a national level, as internal divisions between Republicans grow in importance.
Heavy doses of outside money made an appearance unusually early, during the primary infighting. Brooks Firestone, a model centrist Republican candidate, was pounded by TV ads that tied him to the rarely performed partial-birth abortion procedure. Although Firestone opposes the procedure in general, he favors exemptions in the case of a threat to the health of the mother. For this he was labeled pro-abortion, and tarred by television images so graphic they were briefly kept off the air. Similar ads were refused by local television affiliates for the runoff election campaign.
The ad campaign aimed at Firestone was paid for by the Campaign for Working Families, a Washington-based political action committee with a right-wing agenda based around social issues, especially abortion. The campaign helped Firestone’s opponent, Tom Bordonaro, mobilize the most culturally conservative wing of the GOP, who turned out in numbers sufficient to swamp more moderate and centrist GOP voters.
Firestone’s campaign emphasis on economic issues and the role of government could not bring Republican voters to the polls. But having won the nomination, Bordonaro could not muster the votes to win the election. A traditionally Republican congressional seat that had been held by the GOP from 1944 to 1996 fell to the Democratic candidate by a lopsided majority.
This outcome might, of course, be a fluke, a one-shot political singularity. But it could also be an early symptom of a more fundamental reorganization, a fracture in the Republican Party.
At this point the GOP is ironically beginning to suffer the historical consequences of incumbency.
Until they took control of Congress in 1992, Republicans had been the minority party for decades. The internal tensions within the party were, of necessity, only undercurrents. Party adherents mobilized together in opposition and moved in a common direction, because the alternative was to be overwhelmed by the majority.
And it was relatively easy to stay together, as long as the party’s message and program were couched in oppositional—that is to say, negative—terms.
Everything changed, however, when Republicans won a congressional majority. The first year of power, under Newt Gingrich’s leadership, was a time of remarkable coordination and willingness to work together, as befitted successful revolutionaries. But being in power is fundamentally different from being out of power.
In order to act, rather than react, Republicans were required to say what they were for, rather than what they were against. This generative task soon revealed the cracks in Republican unity, the deep differences that had been hidden while the GOP was the minority party.
The nature of the divergence is, broadly speaking, between economic and cultural conservatism. There has always been a tension within the Republican Party between those whose primary concern is maintaining what they see as cultural values, and those who wish to expand the role of the market and decrease the role and importance of government. These interests don’t necessarily have much in common, except their opposition to the Democrats and liberalism.
In the 22d District election, this internal divergence had a marked effect. The cultural conservatives demonstrated unexpected strength within their own party by defeating the centrist candidate. Yet that very success drove other Republicans to support the Democratic candidate. The Republican Party, in effect, handed victory in a congressional race to the Democrats by abandoning the center.
At this moment, the center is the key to American politics. On the national scene, Clinton has effectively thwarted the push to the right by embracing the center, by compromising and accepting limits on government. In return, the public seems to give him credit for the currently successful economy and for balancing the budget, credit they withhold from the Republican-controlled Congress.
Republicans continue to complain about government, but after years in power, they are the government. They bear all the burdens of incumbency, and the GOP is tainted by the generalized anxieties of the age of down-sizing. Now add to that the fundamental split between cultural conservatives and economic Republicans, and you can see the potential for a change in the fortunes of the Republican Party.
We got a hint of the potential magnitude of that change when Firestone commented to columnist George Skelton after Bordonaro’s loss in the general election that, “I’ll say the unthinkable. This opens up the avenue to a third party. I’m watching the behavior of the Republican Party.”
Lois Capps is a strong, intelligent woman who shared Walter’s struggle to become the first Democratic congressman in the 22nd District in 40 years. She had the support of the Democratic Party, not to mention her own considerable share of outside money. Yet before the campaign she was relatively inexperienced, and could have been vulnerable to a centrist candidate. The margin of her victory in this traditionally conservative district suggests she faced a Republican opposition fundamentally divided over social issues. The outcome has important implications for the future of both parties.