Three Lessons for the GOP

Commentary by John C Goodman

Two years ago, the Democratic Party was imploding. Democrats were losing elections almost everywhere. They even lost mayoral elections in Los Angeles, and New York City and Jersey City - places where there virtually are no Republicans. They had no platform and no agenda.

They still have no platform and no agenda. Yet, they retook the presidency, ran credible races for the House and Senate and gained 96 seats in state legislatures. How did it happen?

There are three lessons for the GOP: (1) Message trumps no message; (2) at the margin, the female vote can be purchased cheaply; and (3) a new kind of strategic liberalism has emerged from the Democrats' desperate attempt to regain power.

Message. As Americans entered the voting booth on November 5, everyone remembered the Democratic message: Republicans want to cut taxes for the rich paid for by cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and education. Very few people could remember Bob Dole's message. This is not because of media bias. It's because a simple idea repeated many times is easily remembered, whereas complex ideas, each explained in many different ways, are not remembered.

Gender Gap. In the Congressional elections, men favored Republicans by 9 percentage points; women favored Democrats by 10 points. Among suburbanites, men favored Republicans by 12 points; women favored Democrats by 6. The gender gap thus cuts both ways. It is important, however, because many women who ordinarily might be expected to vote Republican (and whose husbands vote Republican) voted for a Democrat instead - possibly supplying the margin of victory. This tendency has exacerbated over time. Between 1992 and 1994, the preference for congressional Democrats grew from 6 to 10 percentage points among all women and switched from 6 points for Republicans to 6 points for Democrats among suburban women.

Why does the gender gap exist? Apart from differences between the two parties over abortion, candidates are able to woo women voters by strategic manipulation of language and by occasionally supplying substance as well.

At the Democratic convention and in their campaigns, Democrats repeatedly used the words "children" and "education" and addressed other issues of special concern to women. By all rights, candidates who are in the pockets of teachers' unions should not be viewed as friends of children seeking an education. Yet, Bill Clinton successfully campaigned as the pro-education candidate. By contrast, Bob Dole's proposal to abolish the Department of Education sounded anti-education.

President Clinton and Democratic congressional candidates also freely discussed issues over which the federal government has virtually no control. Clinton campaigned on school uniforms and report cards for schools. In Minnesota, Paul Wellstone campaigned against wife battering.

As for substance, Clinton promised more money for breast cancer research and Internet access in all schools. Republicans passed it. He signed legislation that would allow women two days in the hospital for child birth. In focus groups, the two-day mandate was one of the most important reasons why women preferred Clinton.

Strategic Liberalism. Although President Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over," focus groups reveal that people do not equate health insurance mandates with "big government." In this and in other areas, liberals have discovered that they can expand the power of government incrementally without appearing to be liberals and can often woo women voters at the same time.

In the last campaign, the president demonstrated the capacity to advance ideas that were inconsistent with his own past positions and against the interest of key constituencies in order to gain electoral advantage. The two-day-hospital-stay mandate is completely inconsistent with Hillarycare, which sought to encourage everyone to join HMOs and to allow health care specialists to make such decisions based on medical and cost-effectiveness considerations. The mandate also goes against the president's managed competition constituency. Hence the president was willing to jump over logic and consistency and to jump over strong special interest supporters to get to the marginal female voter.

This is a new kind of liberalism. Old liberalism was special-interest liberalism. One could predict the old liberal agenda based on the strength of its special-interest constituents. Strategic liberalism is much harder to predict. Counterstrategies are much harder to devise. Moreover, since strategic liberalism involves a new way of thinking, initiatives could come from younger members of Congress rather than the leadership.

State governments have already passed more than 1,100 mandates, proving their popularity with voters. Expect strategic liberals to begin in the 105th Congress with mandates of special interest to women:

  • Annual mammograms with no deductible
  • No deductible for mastectomies
  • Annual pap smears with no deductible
  • Checkups for children with no deductible

The onslaught will continue, as special interests descend on the Capitol: chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, in vitro fertilization centers, etc. At the same time, the administration will push for KidCare - Hillary's plan adapted for children.

Conservative Response. In the post-World War II period, the conservative response to traditional liberalism has been a completely defensive strategy of: resist and retreat, resist and retreat, etc. Yet, this strategy would be a disastrous response to strategic liberalism. It would cause conservatives to die a death of a thousand cuts. After two years it would convince marginal voters that only liberal Democrats care about health care for women and children.

The key concept behind a counterstrategy is to couple the traditional commitment to such "conservative" issues as lower taxes, deregulation and privatization with a focus on such "liberal" concerns as health, education, environment, pensions and women's issues in general. In each area there must be an aggressive, pro-free-enterprise agenda for solving problems.