Where Have You Gone, Lee Atwater?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – November 10, 1998

At least the media are consistent.

When Republicans win, the media urge the GOP to “reach out” to the left to bring the country together. When Republicans lose, the media admonish the GOP to move to the left or face extinction. The post-election advice is always the same: Abandon your conservative base, and come follow us.

These folks seek a system where both parties answer to their whistle. With the Democrats already in their pocket, they want the GOP to climb in. Then, the media can serve as tutors to the nation. What they resent most is a party that ignores them and follows its own drummer.

So why are Republicans listening to this biennial claptrap?

Richard Nixon, after all, ignored the advice and won 49 states in 1972, as did Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Indeed, Republicans have won in recent decades by conducting campaigns and raising issues that set the media’s teeth on edge. Even George Bush — down 17 points before taking Lee Atwater’s advice and savaging Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” who had furloughed Willie Horton — won the White House with a campaign the press abhorred.

Now consider the respective returns of recent off-year elections.

In 1994, the GOP went on the attack against Bill Clinton for putting homosexuals in the military, for the social rants of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, for raising taxes and for Hillary’s attempt to take over America’s health-care system. Triumph ensued. For the first time in 40 years, Republicans took control of Congress.

In 1998, however, the GOP opted for compromise. Social conservatives got the wet mitten in the face. The middle-class tax cut was deep-sixed. Republicans caved on the budget and broke the spending caps. Our surplus is now being used to pay down Brazil’s deficit.

The party’s reward: Clinton turned loose the War Room. The GOP was charged with trying to sacrifice Social Security and intimidate African Americans to keep them from voting, as well as with being morally culpable for the murders of Matthew Shepard and Barnett Slepian and being “extremists” on abortion.

That the Democratic campaign was far more deeply rooted in falsehoods and demagoguery than any Willie Horton ad did not make it ineffective. The politics of confrontation worked for the Democrats in 1998, and the politics of compromise failed the GOP.

So what is the media’s counsel now for the Republicans? More timidity and more compromise: The party must drop impeachment and abandon life. The press is saying that any future GOP prosperity is contingent on the betrayal of its most devoted followers.

And what does the press offer in return? On this, we get silence. After all, every four years, the press votes 80 percent to 90 percent Democratic.

In this media-saturated city, it is difficult for Republicans to keep their bearings. Those who stand their ground on conservative principles are baited and bashed; those who sell out are rewarded with puff pieces. With rare exceptions, the longer Republicans stay in this capital, the more accommodating they become to the orthodox liberalism that is the defined dogma of our established church.

In 1998, Republicans forgot a lesson learned on the long rise to power after 1964. Straight-ticket Republicans and Democrats may vote their interests and beliefs, but swing voters are motivated more by what they fear than what they favor.

LBJ was a sure winner in 1964, but he would not have gotten 60 percent had Barry Goldwater not been painted as a radical right- wing extremist. Nixon would have won handily in 1972 but not with that margin had George McGovern not been portrayed as he was.

Reagan’s victory of 1980 was more due to a national wish to be rid of Jimmy Carter, the hostage crisis and 21 percent interest rates than it was a vote for tax cuts. And Republicans who think their 1994 win was a vote for the Contract With America have imbibed too freely of their own propaganda.

In 2000, Republicans will need to attract Democratic votes. On that, all agree. But the key question is: Which Democrats are likely to vote for the GOP? Is it not those who voted for Nixon, Reagan or Bush in 1988? And to bring these Democrats back, would the GOP not do better by dumping racial preferences, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the International Monetary Fund and foreign aid than by deserting the unborn?

Nothing has changed; you go hunting where the ducks are.