HAVRE DE GRACE -- The big media, and not just the big Maryland medium kind enough to print this, love liberal Republicans. They even like the crossbred sort who are liberal on social questions such as abortion, and conservative on economic questions such as taxes.
Backing liberal Republicans avoids the stigma of supporting Democrats all the time. Also, if you're a big medium, it keeps the Democrats from taking you entirely for granted, the way they take black voters. And it lets you claim that your politics really are bipartisan and mainstream, even if nobody believes that.
In Maryland, the quintessential liberal Republican was for years Sen. Charles Mathias, who usually managed to run to the left of his Democratic challengers, unless they were so off-the-charts that they made him look like a centrist by comparison. The media loved him. If he were running today he might be unelectable, but he'd still win endorsements.
Nowadays, people like Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall and Executive Charles Ecker of Howard County are seen in press circles as being in the Mathias tradition, even though all three are more conservative on economic issues than was the senator. (Whether Mr. Ecker is truly the marshmallow on social issues which this support implies remains to be seen, however.)
Nationally, New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman is supposed to be the sort of candidate who can rescue Republicanism from the clutches of Newt Gingrich, the Christian Coalition and other hobgoblins of the editorial pages -- and at the same time help them close the dreaded gender gap created by female voters' preference for Democrats.
The recent election results suggest that this theory is about as solid as O.J.'s alibi.
All around the country, liberal or would-be liberal Republicans lost, while conservatives won. For the Senate, Bill Weld lost in Massachusetts, Sam Brownback won in Kansas. Rep. Dick Zimmer, a born-again moderate, lost a race for the Senate in jTC New Jersey; a pro-life conservative won Mr. Zimmer's old seat, while elsewhere in the state two other moderate Republicans, including one endorsed by the New York Times, lost congressional races to Democrats.
As for the gender gap, as Fred Barnes points out in the current Weekly Standard, it turns out to have less to do with social issues than economic ones. Women simply seem to like government spending more than men. (More women than men also report getting most of their information about public affairs from television, a statistic which may or may not be relevant.)
In New Jersey, Mr. Zimmer talked like a Democrat on economics, and wiped out his gender gap even as he was losing the election; in Massachusetts, where the pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Mr. Weld talked tough on taxes and spending, a majority of women abandoned him in favor of John Kerry.
In fact, hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, right along with the more presentable subjects, education and taxes and crime, still work for Republicans. They worked in 1996 for those who used them, while the dim-bulb Republican presidential campaign was being persuaded (by the media) not to risk dirtying its reputation (in the media) by talking about them. And they'll work in years to come, because people care deeply about them.
Consider two social issues which the 1996 Dole campaign was too delicate to handle forthrightly -- partial-birth abortion and gay marriage.
Liberal Republicans are expected either to evade these subjects or to mind-meld with liberal Democrats on them. Conservative voters, the argument goes, will then fall docilely into line, because they will have nowhere else to go. Debate will have been silenced, and that will be considered good, because real debate would have been "divisive."
But there are quite a few people who think that what happens to a living child in a partial-birth abortion isn't appreciably different from what happened to that infant born in Delaware recently to two well-scrubbed college kids -- except that the college kids, who did the job without professional assistance, are facing murder charges.
And there are quite a few people who see official sanction of gay marriage as amounting to a policy declaration that a traditional family is no longer considered to have special social value, and that to the government, it's only another alternative lifestyle.
Liberal Republicans may prefer talking about trade with China or cutting the capital-gains tax. But the party ignores fundamental social issues at its peril. They're loaded with political passion, which is like a great river; the longer you dam it up, the more it will change the landscape when it inevitably breaks free.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 12/08/96