We Must All Be Both Free and Moral, Says the GOP


A committee has been called a cul-de-sac into which ideas are lured to be quietly strangled. Not so the Republican platform committee. Its handiwork shows clearly the conflicting ideas in the party's divided mind, and the nation's past.

The secret of being a bore is to tell everything and the platform is, in vast stretches, chloroform in print. It covers (among many other subjects) the Hobbs Act, mortgage revenue bonds, Cyprus and the U.N. trusteeship in Palau. But beneath the tangled underbrush of little details lurks a large contradiction that reflects the mingling of the Republican past and present.

Republicans are for less government, except when they are for more. They are for less taxes, spending and regulations, all three of which have increased a lot during the tenure of the president who will run on this platform. But this platform prudently does not challenge the national consensus that contemporary government's primary function is to provide entitlements that fulfill a still-expanding array of economic "rights."

Republicans are hot to have government stop the moral rot that, amazingly, is sending the country to wrack and ruin in spite of many stern Republican presidencies. Now, let us not make light of Republicans' admirable earnestness about serious issues. But also let us not neglect the impulses pulling their party toward opposite aspirations.

Abortion is only the most obvious example of the party's libertarian and moralizing impulses in conflict. The platform demands strong government action to outlaw this practice that women have resorted to approximately six million times in the past four years. And the platform contains many other examples of the party's contradictions.

For example, the platform laments the nation's litigation explosion, but it also says: "We endorse Republican legislation allowing victims of pornography to seek damages from those who make or sell it, especially since the Commission on Pornography, in 1986, found a direct link between pornography and violent crime committed against women and children." That idea of victimization, derived from that "direct link," should generate interesting litigation.

The Republican platform rides off in several directions because the party, like the Republic, got to the present from several directions. In fact, the Republican Party was the great "nationalizing" force and the architect of modern energetic government.

America's Founders learned (from John Locke, among others) that government exists for the modest purpose of protecting liberty, understood primarily as freedom from government. But the Republican Party's commitment to minimalist government could not survive the first Republican presidency.

As the Civil War changed from a war to restore the Union as it had been, to a crusade for "a new birth of freedom," the federal government came to be regarded differently. It was seen less as simply a threat to freedom and more as a provider and enlarger of freedom. The proximate cause of this changed perception was the Emancipation Proclamation, which was made possible by the Union victory at Antietam. John Locke died at Antietam.

Before the Civil War the federal government had been barely visible to most Americans. By the end of the war the federal civilian bureaucracy, 53,000 strong, was the nation's largest employer and the Republican Party was going to use it, vigorously.

The war inaugurated a Republican era. Reconstruction in the South, and government-driven economic development in the North and West, reflected a redefinition of American freedom as something served by government power. As Eric Foner writes in his history of Reconstruction, the Emancipation Proclamation clothed federal power with moral purpose and a new class put that power to the service of what that class considered moral: its interest in economic growth.

The war stimulated industry, from railroads to meatpacking to clothing. (Not just military boots and uniforms. A Philadelphia firm advertised the superiority of its mourning wear.) The Republican Party became the instrument of a commercial class demanding activist government to keep the growth going.

Republican administrations provided tariffs, a national paper currency and banking system, public debt, encouragement of immigration, the Homestead Act and Land Grant College Acts to spread agricultural and other remunerative knowledge, land grants and bond issues for railroads and other "internal improvements," and war against Indians who were slow to recognize the romance of railroading on their lands.

Until well into the 20th century, writes Michael Barone, Republicans were "the national, activist, even busybody party," while Democrats, professing Jeffersonian defense of localisms, respected regional mores, "from segregation in the South to the saloon in the North." In the 1920s and 1930s some Republicans -- Robert La Follette, George Norris, Fiorello La Guardia -- were among the strongest congressional advocates of government policies of nationalization and redistribution. It was a Republican administration -- Eisenhower's -- that undertook the simultaneous construction of two of the most ambitious modern public works, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate Highway System.

Republicans formerly, like Bill Clinton today, called their activism "investment" -- spending money to stimulate money-making. So if the Republicans' platform, shot through with strange silences and ambivalences about modern government, seems like a small portion torn from a large map of a long and winding road, it is.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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