WE COULD immediately tell that the letter was a clever deception. I had my suspicions the moment my roommate pulled the envelope from the mailbox and said, "It's from Steve Forbes!"
Then he added, "It can't be that Steve Forbes... can it?"
To my surprise, it was the Steve Forbes who's running for President, and he (according to his letter), wanted us to look at a fact sheet he had typed up and answer a short survey. The whole missive was charmingly arranged: neatly typed cardstock pages were topped by a Post-it note that bore a "personal" plea from Mr. Forbes imploring us to read the typewritten pages. The note was produced in a font and color clearly designed to create the illusion that Forbes had written it by hand.
With such a personal invitation, I could hardly resist the urge to carefully scour the note. Predictably enough, it included a large section on the benefits of Forbes's 17 percent flat tax, as well as spiels about his Medicare and Social Security plans.
The cleverly worded survey contained questions like, "What do you like best about my 17 percent flat tax plan?" Almost all the answers were positive or encouraging--the most negative response I could find was along the lines of "I don't know; please send me more information."
Naturally enough, I began to dismiss the letter as a harmless diversion for the afternoon. But I felt something gnawing at the back of my mind as I put the note down. I had a feeling that something was missing from the letter: a paragraph, perhaps even a page that I had expected to be there. So I picked the letter up and read it again.
Then I realized what hadn't been there. In all eight pages of letter and survey, Forbes had not once addressed a purely social issue. I found myself wondering what Forbes thought about affirmative action, gay rights, durgs, abortion, and gun control.
Forbes didn't ignore everything beyond economics, of course--he included the obligatory call for a more honest, moral president. He didn't, however, seem to want to go into what being moral meant. At first, I was shocked, since that's been a staple of past Republican campaigns.
As I thought more about it, however, I realized that Forbes wasn't the only GOP candidate evading social issues. Most of the Republicans seem to have an extremely bland outlook on the old staples. The only fire I've seen coming out of the Republican camp has been Gary Bauer's demand that candidates swear to appoint only pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.
Of course, the campaign season won't be in full swing for quite a while, and most candidates are using this time to tentatively feel out the platform positions that will give them the best chances in the primaries. We can expect to see a little more brimstone in the coming months, but not very much. The old moralizing fire is very close to being gone.
The reasons for this retreat are varied. First, the Republicans have recently gotten burned by many of the issues that they have long stood for. Their opposition to stricter gun control measures in the wake of the Littleton, Colorado tragedy crippled them politically.
They were forced to concede the point on gun control and were rendered unable to effectively attack President Clinton on his Kosovo policy or implement the stricter controls they desired on what you see on the airwaves. Even worse, Clinton pulled off a coup on the Republican position by getting a pledge of stricter enforcement of the R rating without implementing costly new laws.
Also, Republicans have gotten hammered recently on issues like abortion, because they have, to a certain extent, been identified with the radicals who bomb clinics and shoot doctors.
But even more critical to the change in the Republican attitude is the retreat of the Christian Coalition. Because the IRS ruled that the overtly political organization was not entitled to tax-exempt status, the Coalition has been forced to divide itself. The reorganization of the group will take some time and will very likely weaken it. The coming election cycle is likely to see less influence from the Coalition, and a connected reduction in the Republican social focus.
That may pose some danger for the country. The strength of the economy and the relative lack of foreign policy headlines beyond Kosovo will likely lead to an introspective period in the next four years. People will be searching for new problems. With crime on the decline, issues like racial inequality, gay rights and abortion will come charging into the forefront of the national consciousness. The next president will be forced to deal with these problems. We need to know what will be done about them.
(Sparky Clarkson is a rising fourth-year College student and Opinion Editor for the Cavalier Daily.)