GOP: Don’t forget the coasts

By Tim Miller

With all of the recent news about Iraq inspections and the terrorist bombing in Kenya last week, little has been said about what’s going to happen in Washington now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House. This is a troubling time for American politics, and given the hawkish attitudes that the top Republicans espouse, it would behoove the public to keep a close eye on their actions while the scales of power in the Senate are rebalanced. This is not only critical in terms of U.S. foreign relations, but also for very pressing domestic concerns.

The political situation has become clearer in recent weeks. Immediately after the election, I wrote that people chose the Republicans because the Democratic leaders started appearing to be watered-down versions of their GOP counterparts–if we in the United States want a conservative foreign policy, then we’d be best off trusting the conservatives to implement it. Nonetheless, as I and many other pundits have pointed out, the GOP’s election victory in no way implied that they had a mandate from the American people to pursue a hard right agenda. Immediately after the election, I was unsure if the Republican leadership would recognize this. Now I can pretty safely say that they don’t.

This belief primarily comes from an article I recently read in The Washington Post, which contained a rather lengthy quote from Senator Trent Lott. In a nutshell, he favored using GOP control to keep taxes low, reduce spending on social programs, beef up defense, and appoint conservative judges that would not take part in so called judicial activism. By itself, these positions are not surprising–the Republicans have watered themselves at these troughs for years. What really galled me was his statement that the only people opposed to such measures were East and West Coast liberals, and that the “meat” of the American “sandwich” (his analogy) was behind them.

This dramatic oversimplification of the complexities of American geographic politics speaks to how the two parties view themselves. Lott’s analogy speaks to how the conservative “heartland” is seen as opposed to the more liberal and decadent coasts. But the real divide seems to be between rural and suburban areas. If Lott’s statement were true, why would “heartland” states such as Wisconsin generally be thought of as battlegrounds in presidential and congressional elections? But even this picture is overly simplified, as a lot of urban areas, particularly those that are becoming gentrified, are leaning toward more conservative politics, particularly with regard to issues such as crime prevention. Likewise, a lot of rural areas have their share of impassioned liberal (or at least Democratic) voters.

But what really disturbs me about Lott’s statement is not its untruthfulness, but its disrespect for large portions of the American populace (liberal coastal-dwellers). This man is supposed to be a leader in U.S. politics, who uses his high position not only to represent the people of his home state, but to work for all Americans. If Lott has any sort of aspirations to national political office, he would be wise to not alienate in one fell swoop such a large portion of the electorate.

Lott’s speech is not the only sign of the continued hard-right drift of the Republican Party; the promotion of Tom DeLay to the position of House Majority Leader also signifies this. I don’t blame Republicans for catering to their constituency, but they are mistaken if they think that they can live perpetually on the fringes of American politics. The fact of the matter is, while the Republicans have been the more successful party in recent years, and their message has resonated more with larger numbers of the American people, they are still dealing with a nation that is conservative, not reactionary.

I don’t think that most Americans in general have a fundamental problem with taxes for necessary government services, even those that provide reasonable social services. Furthermore, with the recent spate of scandals, a lot of people have become suspicious of an uncompromising pro-big business line. The Republicans have a golden opportunity; their stances on national defense and tax policy have won them a broad base of support. They must be careful not to lose it by pushing for hard-right social policy.