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Jewish World Review March 6, 2000 /29 Adar 1, 5760

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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Coalition politics -- ONE OF THE WISEST PROVISIONS of the Constitution of the United States forbids Congress from making any law -- any law -- about religion. After centuries of religious strife had torn Europe apart and spread death and destruction across the continent, those who wrote the Constitution wanted no part of that in America.

Pitting one religion against another is playing with dynamite. Yet that is what Senator John McCain has now resorted to, in a desperate attempt to salvage his failing candidacy. Attacking religious conservatives in Virginia, as a way of attracting Catholic votes in New York, may or may not work as a political strategy. But such divisiveness is a disservice to the country, as well as to McCain's own party, which needs the support of both in November.

National elections are won by coalitions. Moreover, the differences between religious conservatives and Roman Catholics are nowhere near as large as the differences within the political coalition that succeeded in electing Franklin D. Roosevelt to four consecutive terms in the White House.

The Roosevelt coalition ranged from white-supremacist bigots like Mississippi's Senator Theodore Bilbo to Harlem's militant civil rights activist Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. It ranged from a darling of the Communists like Congressman Vito Marcantonio to ultra-conservative Southerners who usually voted in Congress with the Republicans.

Yet the coalition paid off politically where it counted -- at the ballot box. The rule-or-ruin game was not allowed to destry FDR's coalition. But today that is the game which has been played both by John McCain and by some of the people he is attacking.

Coalition politics has never been the Republicans' strong suit. While they are in fact a coalition today -- ranging from the country club set to Bible belt Christians -- it is a very uneasy coalition. So long as the Dow Jones average is up and taxes are down, the country club set is happy. But some religious conservatives would rather lose with an anti-abortion plank than win without it. They liken the crusade against abortion to the crusade against slavery. But they fail to follow the parallel.

Abraham Lincoln did not run on a platform pledged to end slavery. If he had, he would never have been elected. The question is: Do you want symbol or substance?

Coalition politics works when everyone understands that nobody gets anything until the coalition wins power. An anti-abortion plank or an anti-abortion litmus test for candidates or judges will not save one baby's life. It is not a betrayal of principle to recognize the limits of your power.

On the contrary, it is a betrayal of your cause to make it more likely that the enemies of that cause will be elected because you consider it more important to force the coalition to have symbolic statements that make you feel good than to actually advance another step toward your ultimate goal.

Some Republicans who are supporting McCain are undoubtedly fed up with the single-issue people to whom abortion and prayer in school are the touchstone of their politics. So long as the American people are deeply divided over these issues, there is a lot of political missionary work that has yet to be done before either becomes a realistic possibility. That is the nature of a democracy. And there is no point losing presidential election after presidential election in the meantime.

The most successful Republican of this century, Ronald Reagan, made it an 11th commandment that Republicans should not attack each other. Although John McCain claims to be a Reagan Republican, he has led the way in violating the Gipper's 11th commandment as well as in fighting against Reaganesque tax cuts.

McCain's runaway rhetoric suggests a temper that could not be controlled, just as his ugly speech after losing the South Carolina did. A radio interviewer could not get McCain to talk about education because the Senator insisted on rambling on and on with seething comments about Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

This sounds like something more than just a political tactic. It sounds like the same kind of uncontrollable temper that people who have dealt with McCain in Washington have been talking about. It is hardly what you want in a President of the United States, whose sound judgment and finesse can mean the difference between peace and war.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate