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Riordanism and the Republican future

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 11, 2002

Steve Sailer deserves credit for coining the term "Riordanism," as apt a description of the latest Republican electoral strategy as any. Riordanism holds that if Republicans find beating Democrats difficult, the answer is to nominate candidates who essentially are Democrats themselves in terms of their issue positions.

Riordan, seen here with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in November 2001
Riordan, seen here with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in November 2001

Its namesake is of course the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in California, Richard Riordan. Republicans rarely become mayors of large cities with diverse populations, yet Riordan was elected mayor of Los Angeles twice without any prior experience in elective office. He was a decent mayor, a respite from the loony leftism that has pervaded the city's politics for decades even if he did not as aggressively push some conservative urban policies as his New York counterpart Rudy Giuliani. Riordan did preside over relative law and order in Los Angeles for eight years without becoming as divisive a figure among his city's minority communities as Giuliani. This has persuaded many battle-weary California Republicans - not to mention a few Bush administration politicos in Washington - that Riordan is the most electable GOP candidate for governor.

Yet on the issues, Riordan is virtually indistinguishable from Gov. Gray Davis, the incumbent Democrat. A columnist for the Orange County Register quoted him as saying that Californians are "under-taxed." He has said he is open to civil unions and a moratorium on capital punishment, while already supportive of abortion on demand, affirmative action, welfare benefits for illegal immigrants, amnesty and gun control. This is on top of repeatedly endorsing and financially contributing to Democratic candidates, including a donation to Davis. The refrain is that while businessman Bill Simon and Secretary of State Bill Jones may be more conservative and in step with core GOP principles, Riordan is electable. (Peter Beinhart exhaustively listed the virtues of Riordan as GOP nominee in a recent New Republic article.)

Perhaps an even better example of Riordanism than Riordan himself is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Riordan has at least always been a Republican and, as voters are finding out due to Davis' attack ads, was more conservative before it was politically opportune for him to move left. Bloomberg was a lifelong liberal Democrat who switched to the Republican Party only when it became clear that its less crowded primary field was more likely to get him on the ballot as a mayoral candidate. Between 1990 and 2000, he reported $337,000 in campaign contributions to the FEC, of which 91.5 percent went to Democrats. Bloomberg's donations helped reelect Bill Clinton, underwrite Al Gore and defeat Alfonse D'Amato, New York's last Republican US senator. While he gave $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $80,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $59,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he gave no money to corresponding Republican committees. He even refused to say whether he voted for George W. Bush or against Hillary Clinton in 2000.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Bloomberg

Despite a longtime Democratic affiliation, generous bankrolling of Democratic candidates and liberal policy positions on a whole host of issues, Bloomberg won the GOP nomination easily and was elected mayor with the support of Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki. Now in office, he is filling his administration with David Dinkins retreads.

The problem with Riordanism, principled objections aside, is that except in cases where you are dealing with personally popular politicians, wealthy people financing their own campaigns or media celebrities - your Bloombergs and Riordans- it doesn't really work. These liberal Republicans still lose elections. It should be fairly obvious why this is the case. While swing voters are important because they need to be added to a candidate's base unless that base is so large as to comprise a majority of the electorate on its own, they are just a part of what it takes to win. Arithmetically, without the base, winning swing voters is useless. If a candidate alienates their own base, they must win progressively larger numbers of swing voters to compensate, to the point where it often becomes quixotic.

Even some of the poster children of moderate Republicanism understand this reality. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld was widely celebrated for his flamboyant social liberalism before he self-destructed in the mid-90s. His outspoken support for legal abortion and gay rights did offer some political benefits. First, it neutralized these controversial topics and Democratic bogeymen like the religious right as issues in his gubernatorial campaigns. Second, in 1990 it helped him put together an extremely unlikely coalition against Democrat John Silber, whose gruff social conservatism was off-putting to some suburban liberals. But his primary appeal was always on the basis of conservative rather than liberal issues. Bill Weld ran on a platform of tax cuts, crime control and welfare reform. He touted balanced budgets and the death penalty. He was reelected with 71 percent of the vote in 1994 largely because he delivered on his pledges of fiscal conservatism and law and order, while Democrats in the legislature rebuffed him on deeper tax cuts and capital punishment.

Riordan Republicans also like Rudy Giuliani, who endorsed such Democrats as Mario Cuomo and disagreed with conservatives on issues ranging from abortion and rent control to gay rights and gun control. Yet he too was elected on such traditional Republican issues as law and order and opposition to a bureaucratic city government. He fought the city's liberal leaders on tax cuts, city spending and regulations. He cracked down on criminals in the "ungovernable" city, cut welfare rolls and battled public sector unions. The near universal adulation of Giuliani that followed the September 11 attacks obscure scathing editorials in The New York Times that labeled his budget cuts "civic Reaganism" (they did not mean this as a compliment) and his feuds with such liberal activists as Al Sharpton. Even Arlen Specter began his political career running against liberals' approach to crime.

Notwithstanding opportunists who wish to revive liberal Republicanism, members of the GOP's "progressive wing" are largely relics of a bygone era. Jim Jeffords completed the transition many such Republicans have made over the past 40 years by caucusing with Senate Democrats. Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chaffee is the son of John Chaffee, an old-line Rockefeller Republican whose political career began in a pre-ideological and thus pre-conservative GOP decades ago. It is also worth noting that Chaffee and Jeffords hail from states where a Republican who wins statewide office is atypical in any event.

Simply running Democrats willing to appear on the ballot with an "R" next to their names is not a viable strategy for the GOP. Without its base, the party's candidates can only win isolated elections. A recap: Swing voters are what a candidate must add to their base in order to achieve an electoral majority. Subtracting large portions of the base is every bit as counterproductive as failing to win swing voters and perhaps more so.

Political realists always point out that being principled doesn't get a candidate or party very far if they fail to win elections. But it is also true that winning elections doesn't accomplish very much if it doesn't produce good results or advance the causes that a party believes in. Politics is the art of the possible and compromise is often necessary. But compromise is not the same as surrender. Grassroots Republicans will increasingly begin to wonder if a victory by a professed Republican who believes in most of the same things the Democrats do is in any meaningful sense a Republican victory, while other voters will wonder why they should bother to vote Republican rather than Democrat if the Democratic positions are so wonderful.

If Republicans are serious about being a party that deserves to win elections, they must do the hard work of convincing the American people that their ideas about government are sound and conducting campaigns that will appeal to voters. Simply saying "me too" didn't get Republicans very far in the heyday of this country's postwar Democratic consensus and is shamefully wasteful at a time when the party has gained in voter identification surveys. More Republicans should be accused of Reaganism rather than Riordanism.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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