Building the Center Right Coalition

TWENTY YEARS AGO, Joe Sobran described the Left as “The Hive,” a seemingly seamless, frictionless structure that communicated to all members of the Left how to react to any threat or opportunity the way a beehive operates through instinct.

Today it is the Left that glances longingly at the Right pronouncing it a “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” capable of anything. Ralph Nader requires his new staff to read an article in The Nation magazine that highlighted the Center-Right coalition meeting held on Wednesdays at the Americans for Tax Reform offices in downtown Washington D.C. House minority leader Dick Gephardt tells the press that he hopes to establish a liberal version of the “Wednesday meeting.”

What have conservatives learned in the past 20 years that has created a more unified, broad-based conservative movement. The growth and success of the Wednesday meeting and the creation of now 22 similar coalition meetings in state capitals have several lessons for maintaining and strengthening the modern Center Right movement.

First, the movement and its meetings are majorityminded. The goal is not to bring together the ten most conservative activists in the nation or a state. That was fun in Young Americans for Freedom late night bull sessions. Proclaiming oneself the most hardcore person in the room and refusing to deal with those less than 100% pure is adolescent fun. It is not the route to political power in a nation that requires 51% to win elections. The Wednesday meeting is organized so that if all the individuals and policy interests represented in the meeting showed up on election day we would garner 60% of the vote. Sixty, not 51, percent because there is always erosion through voter fraud and citizens who should vote with us on issues but fail to do so for “irrational reasons” – i.e. the little old lady in Mississippi who agrees with Reagan on all issues, but votes Democratic because Sherman was mean to Atlanta a while ago.

Second, this is the Center-Right movement, not just the Right. Twenty years ago the limited government movement was on the Right. Today the majority of Americans agree with us. We are the natural governing majority if we communicate competently. We have not moved. The nation has.

Third, a successful coalition grows through identifying new potential allies. The modern Center-Right coalition is composed of all Americans, who, on the issue that brings them to politics, wants one thing from the central government – to be left alone: Taxpayers, homeowners, investors, home schoolers, gun owners, or people of faith. We grow by asking who, not yet in the room, agrees with us. Not, how can we change our principles to attract our enemies.

Fourth, meetings are forward-looking. What are we going to do? Whining about past failures is not the same thing as working.

Fifth, a useful meeting focuses on what we in the movement can and will accomplish. There is no use in complaining that an elected official has failed to enact our agenda. It is our job to create the political environment where it is easy and eventually imperative that elected officials cheerfully vote for our agenda. “If only President Bush would do X” is not a useful comment. What will we do to make it possible/necessary for the president to act in accordance with the movement’s goals?

Sixth, this is the movement’s meeting. Meetings and movements should not become the property of one wing of the movement or one elected official or one candidate. The movement is larger than any one person, group or issue.

Seventh, meetings are off-the-record and the speakers at the meeting are the participants of the meeting itself with brief – very brief –presentations. If someone has a great deal of information to impart – a printed handout can convey lots of material without boring those in the coalition not focussed on this particular issue.

Lastly, the meeting in Washington grew slowly from 15 attendees to now 115. It developed a culture where all participants know that this is a movement building and information-sharing meeting. It is not a debating society. It is not the time to argue about first principles. There is no statement of principles that all attendees sign. No votes are taken. There is agreement on 90% of the issues 90% of the time, but a successful majority will have serious differences. We manage conflict. We don’t eliminate it. Successful coalition meetings develop a culture of cooperation, not conflict: No whining, no cursing, and no indulging in individual grudges.

The Right has become stronger and more competent in the past twenty years. The success of our coalition meetings reflects this. WE are winning. They are losing. The only dark cloud on the horizon is that the Left is aware of this and, as Ed Feulner states in his third law, “Never assume that the opposition is standing still.”

Mr. Norquist is President of Americans for Tax Reform, a coalition of taxpayer groups, individuals, and businesses opposed to higher federal and state taxes.