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The fringe factor


Washington -- OKLAHOMA hasn't voted for a Democratic president since 1964 and probably won't for the rest of the century. Manhattan- or San Francisco-style liberalism doesn't flourish on the prairie or in the shadow of Tulsa oil rigs. For individuals linked to the far right to set off a bomb in Oklahoma City, striking at the core of Middle America, spotlights some new fault lines in the Republican coalition. The "wacko factor" is intensifying.

U.S. politics has just become far more complicated and, for conservative strategists, probably more difficult. President Clinton's chances of being re-elected have improved. Even if there are no more bombing tragedies, major weaknesses are now beginning to appear in the armor of right-wing organizations and stalwarts. The GOP is failing an old but critical test of U.S. politics: the need for a would-be majority to keep firm control of its fringe groups and radicals.

Consider the images now being used in conjunction with conservative agendas, heroes and predicaments: gun lobbies, assault rifles, private militias, Rush Limbaugh, religious-right, anti-Semitic conspiracy books and attacks on abortion clinics. Add to this national polls showing the new GOP House Speaker described as too extreme, formerly off-the-wall, flat-tax schemes that would wallop the middle class, and a budget-extremism that slashes popular middle-class programs. This is not a picture of mainstream politics; in fact, it is starting to look like the map of an ideological fever swamp.

During the past 25 years, more than a few voters have perceived the Democrats as hostile, in various ways, to Middle America. Now Republicans could stumble into a comparable position from the opposite side of the spectrum.

True, the Oklahoma City bombing does have major elements of cultural and political coincidence in where it happened and who did it. Other aspects, however, are less coincidental. The thrust of the right over the past decade -- and especially in the past year -- has been to heat up the climate in which these flames have burst forth. Liberals, to be sure, have piled up a lot of the now incendiary kindling -- from ever-expanding federal regulations to widespread insensitivity to small-town, small-business and prayer-book America. But the new "X factor" in U.S. politics is that the right could well come in for more of the blame.

Liberals and conservatives alike should consider the 1960s. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson won a huge landslide in 1964 because GOP nominee Barry M. Goldwater appeared too radical -- too hawkish, too opposed to civil-rights legislation and too willing to tinker with Social Security.

But the landslide gave U.S. liberalism its first big political victory since 1948, and, suddenly, the whole national political landscape seemed to change. Liberals dusted off their two-decade-old wish list and sought to make it law. Not just civil rights, not just federal aid to education, but what became the Great Society -- including programs ranging from the War on Poverty to school busing.

But when race relations, the cities and then the Vietnam War became flash points, too many liberals turned to defending crime and violence -- and consorting with its perpetrators. Democratic fringe groups and radicals were breaking loose.

For all the considerable responsibility that conservatives bore for previous racial segregation and the decline of the cities, when actual violence broke out -- the attacks on downtown shopping districts, on homeowners, on government labs and college administration buildings -- voters perceived such episodes, not unfairly, as encouraged by liberals.

This did not go unnoticed by ordinary Americans: The "social issue" high ground that had been Democratic in 1964 -- when much of the North revolted against the GOP over civil rights -- switched parties with a vengeance in 1968. The era of GOP presidents, elected, in part, to suppress crime and violence, began.

Now, however, the social-issue high ground, including law and order, could be about to flip again. Like the Democrats of 30 years ago, the Republicans -- convinced a favorable political watershed is developing after their big win in November -- have dug out their two-decade-old ideological wish list. Along with some needed reforms, it includes numerous excesses, as well as favors for radical-linked groups on the conservative fringe. The extent to which some of this permissiveness involves firearms and violence is putting the GOP's credibility on law and order at issue.

However, just as the rising profile of the activist left didn't signal an overall leftward trend in the '60s and early '70s, conservatives today may be deceiving themselves in a similar fashion. Unless U.S. politics is about to come totally unglued, the swing to the right in 1994, having pushed its fringes and excesses into the spotlight, is about to create its counterforce.

If violence continues, public judgments on law and order will be the key to how the social issue cuts in 1996. The GOP is now accumulating a set of positions that may appeal in Idaho and South Carolina but are likely to lose voters in California, Illinois or New York.

This includes support for repeal of the 1994 ban on assault weapons; the recent GOP-led Supreme Court decision voiding the federal statute against carrying guns within 1,000 feet of schools, and the House's reversal of Mr. Clinton's funding for 100,000 new police officers. In addition, a recent speech by presidential candidate Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, called for taking enforcement power away from Treasury's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division.

This emerging GOP permissiveness about law enforcement is aggravated by the party's alliance with the National Rifle Association, as well as by some GOP representatives' ties to state militias, to radio talk-show hosts who explain how to kill federal agents and to right-to-life groups that support attacks on abortion clinics.

Highly placed conservatives also have reason to feel vulnerable for feeding the climate of violence. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has described the Democrats and the Clintons as "the enemies of normal Americans," and he blamed liberals for Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who drowned her two sons. The head of the NRA has had to promise that the organization's computer Bullet-n-Board on the Internet will be screened to eliminate such items as how to make bombs using baby-food jars. Fabulous. The more we catalog, the greater the resemblance to the 1960s.

Even party positions on economics justify the notion of an unprecedentedly fringe GOP ideological framework. Rising sentiment for a flat, single-rate income tax is one ingredient. Nobody took this seriously before, because millionaires would pay a lot less, leaving the middle class to shoulder a greater share of the burden. Similarly, Republican voters are protectively nervous about the attack on middle-class entitlements and programs such as Medicare and college aid.

Bluntly put, when a political party and ideology wins a big victory, the greatest test is often whether it can control its fringes -- whether, in fact, the leaders involved even know what and who their fringes and extremists are. In the mid-1960s, the Democrats failed this test, and one important question this year and next is whether the post-1994 GOP can do better.

The cocky Democrats of 30 years ago, convinced that 1964 signaled a new liberal era, were stunned to find their position in national politics going downhill after 1965. Harvard, Harlem and Haight-Ashbury didn't add up to anything like an electoral majority. If today's GOP doesn't watch out, the Michigan Militia, Georgia gun clubs, Aryans of Idaho and fans of televangelist Pat Robertson won't either.

Kevin Phillips is editor-publisher of the American Political Report.

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