The Republicans weren't dull by a long shot


SAN DIEGO, Calif. - As you no doubt noticed, some of the reporters covering the Republican National Convention here were so bored they wanted to go home.

Indeed, one of them did. Ted Koppel of ABC's Nightline imperiously announced he was leaving before the party ended.

Ted missed a good story. Come to think of it, he missed a bunch of good stories. You put a good political reporter in with a few thousand campaign workers, local activists and candidates, and she or he can find a good story. That probably explains why the griping did not come from the political reporters; it came from the TV "personalities."

But in this case, it wasn't just that something happened. Something quite important happened. It took place without debate, so it was easy to miss and tough to televise, but that renders it no less significant - to the politics of the future, to the country, and perhaps especially to the West.

What happened, quite simply, is that the Republican Party completed one of the great reversals in American political history. At their 36th convention, the Republicans ceased to be what they were when they began. Instead, the Republicans switched places with the Democrats.

The Republicans were once the nationalist party. They started life in the 1850s by rejecting the idea of "popular (meaning local) sovereignty," insisting on one nationwide standard for the extension of slavery into the territories. In their first years of great power they unified the nation by subsidizing the railroads and other public improvements. Yes, in pursuing these policies, the Republicans also had a pettier motive - making their friends rich. But in the process, they forged a national community.

It was under Republican administrations, starting with that of the greatest nationalist of all, Abraham Lincoln, that the United States established land-grant universities, created the national park system and built the interstate highways. It was under Richard Nixon, the last nationalist Republican president, that the country adopted national standards for cleaning the air and water.

Last week the Republicans became what the Democrats used to be - the states' rights party. In their platform, the Republicans declared that their "agenda for change, profound and permanent change in the way government behaves, is based on the 10th Amendment to the Constitution."

The 10th is the one which states that any powers not granted to the federal government are retained by the states and the people. For good reason - the U.S. Supreme Court called the amendment "a tautology" in 1939 - the 10th has been largely ignored. Even James Madison, who wrote the amendment as a sop to the anti-federalists, thought it unnecessary. True, Thomas Jefferson took it seriously. But only until he became president. Then he found a way around it. Otherwise, he could not have arranged that little land deal in which the United States acquired most of itself.

Since the Civil War, and especially during the 20th century, the 10th Amendment has been cited almost exclusively by Southern states' rights advocates to protect their beloved tradition of racial inequality. No one who heard Bob Dole's acceptance speech, which told bigots that "the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of," could reasonably accuse the GOP of racism. The modern revival of the 10th is more complicated.

There is some abstract legal philosophy at work - the "original intent" legal philosophy propounded by former Attorney General Ed Meese and by Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - but there is also the new political philosophy of the Republican party, or at least of its most vigorous faction. It is a philosophy that denies there is or ought to be a national community.

Simply consider how profoundly this Republican Congress differed with the view of that last nationalist Republican president. Richard Nixon imposed a nationwide speed limit and proposed welfare reform based on a nationwide minimum family income. Now we have state-by-state limits and block grants.

Among the champions of this new outlook - balkanizing or liberating or both, depending on one's view - are Western mining, ranching, real estate and logging interests who are convinced that the states would impose fewer environmental restrictions on development. It was at their behest that Dole started carrying a copy of the 10th Amendment around with him last year, quoting it and pledging that under a Dole administration, the federal government would do only what the Constitution specifically authorized it to do.

Taken literally, this would be political suicide. In a stroke, it would require doing away with Social Security, flood control and farm price supports. But it isn't meant to be taken literally. In a sense it isn't even meant to be taken seriously; otherwise the Republicans would show just a touch of consistency in how they propose to reduce the size and reach of the federal government. Among the party's contradictions, they want to get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development but not the Army Corps of Engineers, which dredged the harbor here where some of the delegates docked their yachts.

Dole is not about to dismantle the federal government: "In a time of need, the bridge between failure and success can be the government itself," he said, pledging to preserve Social Security and Medicare. But in 56 minutes, he never mentioned either natural resources or environment protection, and there is little doubt that on these issues, at least, he has aligned himself with the states' rights faction which now dominates his party.

Like its predecessor, this states' right movement is regional. It has almost no support in the Northeast and only a bit in the Midwest. It is stronger in the South, but strongest of all in the West, where some people see themselves and their region rather the way Southerners did 40 and 50 years ago.

One can easily take this analogy too far; the worst ecological outrage is hardly on a par with the systematic subjugation of a people. If the militias are the rough equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan, they have so far (Oklahoma City aside) provided more silliness than terror.

Still, the psychological similarities are unmistakable. There is the same resentment of being condescended to by wealthier and better-educated people, the same conviction that "outsiders' (especially those who come to live among you) don't understand your "way of life," the same regional pride which too easily degenerates into a whiny paranoia.

Above all, there is the same sense of being a people apart, almost like being an ethnic group, almost like being ... well, another country, not part of any national community that includes Maine, New Jersey and Ohio.

Even those of us who get nostalgic about the American national community have to acknowledge that the states' rights crowd has an argument. Justice Louis D. Brandeis once called the states "centers of experimentation," and even today states such as Hawaii, Oregon and Vermont are crafting solutions to the health insurance problem that may be well suited to their situations. In a varied, heterogeneous society, the single solution may have its drawbacks.

Still, it was a wise man who warned that when office-holders engage in abstract political philosophy, one ought to hold on to one's wallet. Behind every proposed change in procedure, there are substantive winners and losers. Whatever the intellectual and historical bona fides, strict adherence to the 10th Amendment would make some folks very rich at the expense of other people, or nature, or both.

Besides, while it lasted, the United States of America wasn't a bad idea at all.

Jon Margolis reports on national politics for High Country News.

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