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Introducing the New Republicans

Published Oct. 8, 2005

"We could have Republican governors of a similar mold all across the Northeast, from Whitman in New Jersey to Pataki in New York to Rowland in Connecticut and up to Bill Weld in Massachusetts," Connecticut Republican gubernatorial candidate John G. Rowland told the New York Times a few weeks ago. "Wouldn't that be something?"

It would be something, all right. But what?

How about a whole new wing of the GOP to counterbalance the growing power of the Religious Right? Call them New Republicans _ aggressively conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social issues. Their libertarian philosophy is marked by a profound distrust of government. Keep government out of the boardroom and the bedroom.

Despite its strength in the Northeast, this is not simply a resurgence of Rockefeller Republicanism, which made its peace with the New Deal and accepted a lot of government spending, particularly on public works projects.

Not so the New Republicans. They share a commitment to smaller government, lower spending and tax cuts. Above all, tax cuts. That is why they have found a strong political base in their region's powerful suburban electorate.

Like Rockefeller Republicans, libertarians are strongly pro-business. In the old days, however, business found that it could prosper under big government. Now, the mantra is "free enterprise."

The New Republicans and the old Rockefeller Republicans also share a progressive view on social issues. But there, too, sentiment has shifted from pro-government to anti-government. In Rockefeller's day, the paramount social issue was civil rights. Now abortion and gay rights dominate the social issue agenda. The liberal view, rooted in an educated suburban electorate, is to resist government incursions into private behavior. In a word, tolerance.

The libertarians' icon is Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who won last year in New Jersey, the most suburban state in the nation. Her victory was widely attributed to her bold _ and widely ridiculed _ promise of a 30 percent cut in state income taxes. She promised, she won, and now she's delivering.

If Whitman is the libertarians' icon, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld is their patron saint. Weld was elected in 1990 in a straight libertarian versus populist showdown. This year, he is headed for easy re-election in one of the nation's most liberal states.

Why is Weld so popular? Because he didn't raise taxes. He is also strongly committed to abortion rights and gay rights, to the point where he has appointed several gay officials to his administration.

Weld's staunchly liberal views on social issues help immunize him from left-wing attacks and get him a great many votes from the state's vast constituency of educated upper-middle-class professionals.

He also epitomizes the third strand of New Republican thinking _ a strong commitment to crime-fighting.

Philosophically, libertarians recognize physical security as a legitimate _ perhaps the only legitimate _ function of government. Pragmatically, they know that crime is the obsessive concern of suburban voters. Weld has struggled to get the death penalty through his liberal legislature. George E. Pataki has made it the principal theme of his campaign against New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

The New Republican movement is not limited to the Northeast. Rep. Michael Huffington, a prototypical New Republican, is running for senator in California and doing surprisingly well against Sen. Dianne Feinstein. California is a state of suburbs. And Huffington is the paradigm of a New Republican _ pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, pro-death penalty and deeply hostile to big government.

He favors replacing welfare with more incentives for charity. He defends his refusal to release his income tax returns on the ground that "Americans right now want some privacy _ they want to get the federal government out of their life."

Huffington epitomizes the New Republican spirit: Say no to government. Libertarianism is the opposite of populism. Populists are economically liberal and socially conservative. They want government to protect people and promote traditional values.

While populism thrives among the poor and poorly educated, libertarianism flourishes in society's upper reaches. New Republicans have more than a whiff of elitism about them. After all, one of the most conspicuous things about Weld, Whitman and Huffington is that _ like Nelson A. Rockefeller, their spiritual forebear _ they are all filthy rich.

National Journal. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate