TAMPA, Fla. >> Twenty years ago, Patrick J. Buchanan rocked the Republican convention in Houston by declaring there was a “cultural war” taking place for the soul of America, denouncing the Democratic Party as one that supported abortion, radical feminism and the “homosexual rights movement.”
“The agenda Clinton and Clinton would impose on America — abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat — that’s change, all right,” said Buchanan, a conservative commentator who was a rival to President George Bush in the 1992 campaign. “But it is not the kind of change America wants.”
The speech — along with similarly sharp-edged addresses by evangelist Pat Robertson and Marilyn Quayle, the wife of Dan Quayle, the vice-presidential nominee — pushed issues like abortion, gay rights, religion and role of women in society to the front of the stage, often loudly. Supporters of Bush pointed to the tone of the convention as one of the reasons he lost re-election that November to Bill Clinton.
Yet Republicans gathered here to nominate Mitt Romney suggest that those speeches would hardly give them pause today. What many viewed as the fringes of the Republican Party 20 years ago have moved closer to the mainstream — evidence, Buchanan said, of the extent to which a Republican establishment that was once relatively moderate on social issues has been pushed rightward by grass-roots conservatives.
In a telephone interview, Buchanan, who is not attending the convention, said he was struck by what he described as the warm reception in the hall in 1992. He said that Bush’s aides were similarly praiseworthy after he walked off the stage. The temperature soon cooled but, he said, he had no doubt the speech was the right speech for the right audience in 1992 — and even more so today.
“That speech was then, and is now, consistent with the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” Buchanan said. “The country club and the establishment Republicans recoil from the social, cultural and moral issues which many conservatives and evangelicals have embraced.”
Buchanan said Bush would have been well served had he seized on the issues Buchanan raised and used them in his campaign against Clinton.
“The issue on which they were most vulnerable was social and cultural issues,” Buchanan said. “That is what they could have won on.”
Those issues are not front and center in Tampa, at least not in the televised portion of the convention. But the debate over them has resurfaced nationally in the wake of remarks about abortion and rape by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and in the positions embraced by the party here.
Beverly Caley, a delegate from Kansas, described the platform — in particular, its strictures on abortion — as the most conservative in her party’s history. There is such a consensus within the party on opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage and the importance of faith in public life, she suggested, that raising them this year has created neither surprise nor backlash.
“We are a very conservative party, and the platform reflects that,” Caley said.
So it was that on the opening night of the convention here, Rick Santorum, who ran as a social conservative in his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination, drew by far his most boisterous applause when he alluded to abortion.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who ran for president this year, said a large part of the recoiling against Buchanan in 1992 was because of his tone and provocative language, rather than the ideas he was suggesting, and said that the episode had been exaggerated by the media.
“You have to realize how angry and hostile Buchanan was,” he said. “And here’s Romney who wants to lighten up.”
Here in Tampa, some delegates said there was little reason to dwell on social issues they all agree on, particularly if it could undercut their appeal to independent voters.
“I’m not going to get myself all sticky with the social issues the Democrats are trying to tie around my neck,” said Mary Ann Turner, the chairwoman of the Enfield, Conn., Republican Town Committee, outside of an event for Gingrich.
Referring to social issues as “sticky gum,” she said, “you can’t pull sticky gum off of you.”
Romney has had his own evolution on abortion and gay rights, and had to work hard for years to convince evangelicals of his commitment to their principles. But he is heading into the general election as the embodiment of the party’s shift rightward, a former moderate from Massachusetts running, in part, as a champion of social conservatives.
“The establishment didn’t like it much back in those days, but I think the party has moved in a direction and a lot of those issues my brothers raised then have come to fruition: I think people recognize that he was right,” said Bay Buchanan, a political commentator who is Buchanan’s sister — and an adviser to Romney.