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Don't be fooled: Republicans still are Republicans

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 2, 2000

Neither political party changes.

The Democratic Party's organization is still dominated by a scary mix of labor, teacher unions and minorities. No matter what Bill Clinton and Al Gore say, not all of these Democrats believe the Era of Big Government Is Over. If they regain power they fully intend to resume grabbing your money and bossing you around while accusing you of being intolerant about something.

The Republican Party's organization, in turn, is still dominated by a mix of country-club tax-cutters, religious conservatives and the occasional chuckleheaded bigot. No matter what George W. Bush says, these Republicans are not spending their spare time making sure No Child Is Left Behind. The last time they saw as many blacks and Hispanics as they are seeing this week in Philadelphia was when they shopped for a lawn service.

A leopard does not change its spots. If it is a clever leopard, however, it hides in the tall grass until an unsuspecting antelope or stray voter ambles by.

That is how Bill Clinton got to be our president for the past eight years. He disavowed his party's nutbags and minorities. He verbally slapped Sister Souljah, cold-shouldered Jesse Jackson and declared the end of big government. He told gays to shut up. He stole the Republicans' best ideas, like welfare reform.

You know who despises Bill Clinton most? The organized, liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Clinton is an aberration. He is a hiccup in the modern Democratic process of pandering to interest groups that produced this powerful line of nominees: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter (who managed to get elected once, anyway) Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and now Al Gore.

In short, Clinton got elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1996 by pretending to be a "new kind of Democrat," while the Republicans were not clever enough to pretend to be a new kind of anything.

This fully explains the Republican convention we are witnessing this week.

When the Republicans convened in 1996 in San Diego, the Republican-run House had just voted to make English the nation's "official" language. The House was debating whether to expel children of illegal immigrants from public schools immediately, or to wait until each reached the seventh grade, when he or she would be given the choice of paying tuition or being deported.

Immigration quotas. Cutting off benefits to non-citizen residents. Repealing automatic citizenship for anyone born in the U.S. The result of this xenophobia was that the Republicans managed to lose enough Cuban-American votes to lose Florida for the first time in 20 years.

This week, the kinder, gentler Republicans plan to hear their first speech delivered entirely in Spanish.

The Republicans in 1996 had a platform that called for no fewer than six amendments to the Constitution. They supported the abolition of the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and cutting off federal funds to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corp. They demanded a repeal or radical rewrite of the Endangered Species Act.

Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott got to speak at that 1996 convention, albeit Gingrich via big screen. This year, the inoffensive Dennis Hastert presides like a grand-uncle, but the vinegary Lott is banished. Equally invisible are the leaders of the Republican Party in the House, the guys who actually pass the laws, Reps. Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas. Perhaps their coffins could not be safely transported through sunlight.

In sum, Bill Clinton is the reason all is sweetness in Philly. Bush has adopted a Clintonian strategy, while Gore still struggles with the concept. The safe route for Gore now is to hold a gathering in Los Angeles titled, "(Insert Name of Party Here) National Convention." To mirror Bush, Gore must avoid seeming too . . . well, Democratic.

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