WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Bil Clinton and his middle-road Democratic colleagues who pulled their party to the center this year should feel highly flattered by the latest development in the opposition party.
The formation of a new Republican Majority Coalition by a notable group of GOP moderates and fiscal conservatives to rescue the GOP from religious-right excesses is much like the creation by Clinton and others of the Democratic Leadership Council to counter the excesses of New Deal liberalism.
The DLC argued successfully that the Democratic Party had to change its image from a free-spending giveaway bunch to one that preached more individual and collective responsibility along with the old do-goodism for the socially disadvantaged.
Spurring the new collection of relatively moderate Republicans to action is the growing influence in the GOP of television evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and the Christian Action Network, both of which want emotional social issues such as abortion and condemnation of homosexuality at the head of the GOP agenda.
The defeat of President Bush after a party convention that
emphasized family values and clung to opposition to abortion and the gay lifestyle clearly was a catalyst for formation of the new group, to be headed by Rep. Tom Campbell of California, defeated in a Senate bid in June by a conservative who then lost the November election. Other prominent members include Sens. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Chafee of Rhode Island and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who is retiring at the end of this year.
The new group is being formed as a political action committee, meaning it will accept funds from other PACs to wage its struggle against the religious right for control of the party. Campbell denies that the new coalition is out to "declare war" on the religious right, but it will seek to strip the party platform of its opposition to abortion and gays.
Notably, there already is a moderate GOP group, the Republican Mainstream Committee, pursuing many of the same goals, but it pointedly is not a PAC. Its leader, Rep. James Leach of Iowa, has labored all through the Reagan and Bush years to keep a centrist toehold in the GOP, and during the Republican convention in Houston he expressed fears that it was being lost.
Leach calls the new group "a constructive endeavor" that can meld traditional Republicans and "entrant Republicans" brought into the party in the Reagan era who do not adhere to the narrow "socio-religious" agenda of the religious right.
The Iowa congressman, a strong Bush supporter but regarded as one of the party's more liberal members, says the GOP, once split into a liberal wing personified by Nelson Rockefeller and a conservative wing behind Barry Goldwater, now is seeing those JTC two factions coming together as traditionalists in contrast to the socio-religious faction of more narrow objectives.
At the same time, he sees a serious split along these lines as detrimental to party success. He notes that in Iowa this fall, both sides worked together and achieved his own re-election as well as that of a staunch conservative, Sen. Charles Grassley.
Within the entrenched two-party system, Leach says, it is inevitable that factions will develop in each party rather than the establishment of third or fourth parties. "But if the Republican Party is seen as theocratic," he warns, "the country is not going to give it much support."
Asked why some Republicans fearful of party domination of the religious right have formed a new organization when his Republican Mainstream Committee remains in existence, Leach candidly acknowledges that his group "hasn't done a very good job" in holding the center through the Reagan era.
Moderates alone constitute too small a faction in the GOP, he says, but a coalition of social moderates and fiscal conservatives can prevent "the death knell of the party" that he says will ring if the religious right becomes dominant.
In all, the GOP appears headed for a period of internal conflict, the inevitable outcome of Bush's defeat after 12 years of Republican rule.