A broader GOP base
Many Americans were no doubt amused by the Republicans' battle over the platform language on a potential tax hike, resolved by the insertion of a comma that left both sides free to claim opposing interpretations.
Appreciating the art of the straddle is nothing new in American politics.
And the public itself is divided on the future need to raise taxes to reduce the federal budget - evenly split among Reagan supporters and with a modest 5 -to-4 edge anticipating a tax hike among voters generally.
But moderate Republicans headed for the party's Dallas convention next week warn that the platform does not straddle enough. On high-impact issues like women's rights, defense spending, prayer in schools, and abortion they feel the platform is cutting the party off from a broad enough base of support by taking too-ideological stands. A group calling themselves the Republican Mainstream Committee pressed their case earlier this week at the party's platform hearings.
If one looks at the GOP's ability to recruit Americans into party affiliation , it's hard to make a case for either a sharply ideological or a more moderate approach. Republicans today under conservative Ronald Reagan show, almost to the percentage point, the same minority party status they held under pragmatic Richard Nixon in 1972 - Republicans 28 percent, Democrats 42 percent, independents 30 percent, according to the Gallup Poll.
Under Reagan the GOP has gained 4 percent on the Democrats in party affiliation since 1980, which is within the normal range of quadrennial swings. Significantly, there has been no GOP progress in the lower political reaches; the GOP deficit persists in state legislatures, for instance, where Democrats hold a 3-to-2 advantage. The Democrats are expected to gain perhaps 10 congressional seats this fall on top of 1982's 26 seats and to defeat several GOP Senate incumbents.
Such evidence suggests that the Republicans for a couple of decades have enjoyed a presidential race advantage that has not yet translated into majority status at other levels.
The key to a broader Republican appeal may have less to do with the party's internal conservative/moderate split than with its ability to relate to the have-nots in American society.
In fairness, it is often conservatives like Rep. Jack Kemp of New York who are already consistently trying to reach out to working-class Americans on economic issues.
Looking back, the Democrats in the 1920s were the have-not party. Their main support was in the South - clearly the economic have-not region and still bearing the onus of the Civil War - and among immigrants. The Republicans had most of the rest - small towners, businessmen, and so forth. After the New Deal there was no longer a truly have-not party. The Democrats and Republicans were even in support in 1946, and the Democrats continued to gain. The Democrats became an establishment party, making headway during the Johnson era in corporate board rooms and in educational circles.
Now the Republicans are making inroads again, not just in corporate circles but more broadly across the economic middle, including organized labor and white ethnic groups. At the same time, many of the party's moderate stalwarts are fighting for survival against younger Democratic challengers.
In recent years GOP conservatives have provided the greatest energy behind the party's successes. Still, the moderates have a point about the risks of putting too hard an ideological edge on the party platform.
The American public feels a deep ambivalence on many issues. If the platform in broad terms suggests support for the principle of prayer in schools and less encouragement for resort to abortion, this likely squares with majority opinion. But if it is taken to call for a rigid ban on abortion or a heavy government intrusion in regard to prayer in schools, it will restrict its political appeal.
President Reagan, as leader of his party, is uniquely positioned to seek a broader Republican base. While personally conservative, he has surrounded himself with pragmatic as well as conservative aides. The newly active political forces are women, blacks, and Hispanics. How the candidate and his party reach out to these petitioning Americans may determine the GOP's success in its ambition to achieve majority standing.