Is The Time Right Fora New Conservative Party?

At year's end, religious conservatives have become the target of hostile attacks by the dominant players on the political scene. Republican leaders, who in the past have won elections with a conservative platform, have grown less trusting of these issues. Democrats gleefully label them as “the extremist wing” of the Republican party, and identify them as the engine pushing for impeachment of the President. Backed into a corner by both press and politicians, what kind of a future can they envision for themselves?

Predictions are risky these days—when one week it looks as if President Clinton can get on with “business as usual” and impeachment looks impossible, and the next week there are four articles of impeachment voted out of the House Judiciary Committee, and a grim-faced President says he has no thought of resigning.

The future for religious conservatives will be nothing less than dramatic, I think. In the next few months and years, the country will undergo a dramatic period of political realignment in the aftermath of the scandalous Clinton administration. Conservatives will become more important, not less, as they fight for the institutions that support a culture of life, and try to make their voices heard by politicians eager to win.

One of the problems that must be resolved is the leftward movement of the Republican party. We hear more of the so-called Republican “moderates,” who are positioned to be the key to the impeachment vote in the House. The word “moderate” implies that these people are in the center. They are not. Often they hold pro-choice positions and lean to the left. They are held in higher esteem than the “extreme right” (conservatives), also called the “Ayatollah wing” of the Republican party, the supposed thorn in the side of the party, impeding its way to a “progressive” future.

The conservative base of the Republican party was the source of the Reagan and Bush victories, but the party leadership has a case of amnesia about that history. The leadership is tempted to look for victory down a progressive route. For Republicans it will be a dead end. Conservatives will not support it. The religious conservative vote this time was down 13 points from 1994. Democrats took note that all candidates who held a pro-life position won in the November elections. The Democrats are shrewdly recruiting candidates who are socially conservative, for districts where being so is an advantage. One pollster after the elections reminded Republicans that religious conservatives are on a mission to save the country, not to save the Republican party.

If this shift in political alignments continues, conservatives have another option. John O'Sullivan, former editor of National Review, has suggested that perhaps the time has come for conservatives to form their own national party. The advantage of such a party is that they would no longer be taken for granted, and would have to be wooed. They could take strong stands on issues, such as better educational choice for the poor, and make both Republicans and Democrats clarify their stands.

An obvious objection to this proposal is that such a party would split the Right and guarantee the victory of the Left. O'Sullivan thinks the arrangement would work if the new party did not try to replace the Republican party but served as a “philosophical ginger group,” allied with the Republican party but independent of it. The party could support the Republican candidates it liked, as well as occasional Democratic candidates. But the party would run its own man when the Republicans ran a liberal. New York conservatives have had such a party for the last forty years. One of its candidates (James Buckley) was elected senator, and another (Herb London) was almost elected governor.

The ferocious attack on conservatives, especially religious conservatives, shows they are doing some things right. In the thick of the culture war, they are holding out for principle over polling as a way to arrive at policy decisions. The most recent episode is the Clinton impeachment controversy. The contrast is stark between the arguments for and against impeachment. Republicans, Ken Starr, and Henry Hyde are being pilloried as extremists, out to get the president. The opposition misspeaks. The Republicans, in this instance, have taken a stand on principle, and are holding accountable a man of shameful character who is not worthy by our constitutional standards to be president. It remains to be seen whether our elected representatives will be guided by polling or principle in this historic moment. But conservatives have scored a win for the best arguments for impeachment.

Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.