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Jewish World Review August 18, 2000 /17 Menachem-Av, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

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Consumer Reports

Convention Fluff Shows Genius of American Democracy

‘Compassionate conservatives’ and ‘new Democrats’ battle for the center -- THE FIRST TIME I had the opportunity to meet a real-live “compassionate Conservative,” I have to admit, I was a bit confused. Though I considered myself something of a political sophisticate, I had no idea what the term actually meant, even though Texas Gov. George W. Bush had long been using it to describe his philosophy.

So when a high Republican elected official used the term to describe himself to me in a conversation over a year ago, I decided to be a pain and ask him what he specifically meant by it.

The explanation I received was anything but clear. It started with something about Valley Forge, meandered on to the battle of Gettysburg and wound up with something even more vague about contemporary community values. In other words, it meant nothing.

From that moment on, I knew Bush had a winning slogan.

Philadelphians had a chance to meet a lot of compassionate Conservatives earlier this month, and I’m not sure the definition of the term has gotten much clearer.

Nevertheless, I don’t consider the adoption of the vacuous label as proof of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to take over the country that many of my liberal friends see in the Republican campaign.

Yes, the Republicans are to the right of the Democrats who gathered in Los Angeles this week. But, like the Democrats’ slogan, “new Democrats” — which helped Bill Clinton differentiate himself from liberals and end a long period of Republican dominance of presidential politics — the goal of the compassionate Conservatives has been to position themselves in the center of American politics.

Moreover, they have a developed a laundry list of strong issues such as charitable choice which gives more responsibility for social services to private and religious groups, and vouchers for private and religious schools. These programs address the real day-to-day needs of Americans in a way they hope will be perceived as "compassionate."

The cadres and the leadership of both major parties are, if not extreme, then certainly a bit out of the American mainstream. A poll carried out by The New York Times bears out the truth that the delegates to both conventions do not reflect the views of most Americans on many issues.

The GOP delegates are to the right of most voters; the Los Angeles Democrats are to the left of them. But the candidates know how badly their parties will be punished by the electorate if they allow themselves to be led astray by their true believers. Political history bears this out.

In 1964, the Republicans presented a picture of right-wing extremism at their San Francisco convention and handed Lyndon Johnson a landslide. Eight years later, the spectacle of the extreme left taking over the Democratic convention in Miami sent the electorate scurrying into the arms of Richard Nixon. The Democrats spent most of the next 20 years trying to shake off the “liberal” tag, a word once proudly spoken by Democrats but one that has not been heard much in Los Angeles this week.

Republicans also eventually fell victim to some of their own rhetoric when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich gave voters the impression he really was a “revolutionary” bent on overthrowing our institutions. He was soon consigned to the dust heap of political history.

Since then, both parties have worked hard to maneuver themselves into the center. That’s why most of what was heard at both conventions this year was a feast of oratorical mush, punctuated only by the occasional partisan insult aimed at specific opponents.

The Republicans weren’t eager to allow their gathering to focus on the desire of many of their delegates to end abortion rights. Similarly, the Democrats haven’t been interested in allowing their convention to highlight the fact that most of their delegates favor increasing the size of government and the taxes that support it.

Yet contrary to the fears of some liberal Jews who believe that the Republican Party is a thin veneer for unwashed barbarians who want to turn America into some sort of Bible-thumping theocracy, the “compassionate” ones who partied here were no extremists. This delusion fits in well with the cultural prejudices of American Jewish liberalism.

But the truth is much simpler than that. The people who hung out for four days in Philly may have leaned to the right, but the most important fact about them is that they were just ordinary American politicos who want to win a national election.

And, as much as many conservatives will see the Democratic confab as a celebration of the Democrats’ unholy alliance with Hollywood, the Clinton-Gore-Lieberman crowd is just trying to keep the Democratic bureaucrats at work in Washington and Republican office-seekers out of the executive branch of the federal government.

My conversations with the Republicans who came to Philadelphia revealed that Pat Robertson is no closer to taking over the GOP today than he was a decade ago. Sure, George W. Bush will pay court to Robertson and company during the primaries, and even occasionally disgrace himself with pandering to them, as he did with his appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina.

But the compassionate Conservative Republicans are concerned with governing the country, not with a cultural war. Democratic rhetoric will portray Bush as the cats-paw of the far right, but the odds are that the Christian right will be as frustrated with “W” as it was with his father. The Shrub wants no part of extremism.

Likewise, Al Gore pandered to the left of his party during the New York primary by meeting with the loathsome African-American “activist” the Rev. Al Sharpton. But Gore, too, has aimed for the center with his brilliant stroke of choosing culturally conservative and religiously observant Joe Lieberman as his running mate.

Both Republicans and Democrats know they will lose if they let the American people think they have ventured too far from the mainstream. So, rather than fulminating against the facade of Republican compassion, as many local liberals did during the Republican lovefest here, or against the Democratic pose as the voice of “working families,” it is time to recognize this situation for what is: evidence of the inherent genius of American democracy.

A belief in the good sense of the American people is the best safeguard we have for our liberties.

Long may it wave.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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