Posted on February 13, 2000 in Washington Watch

Since 1992, Republican candidates for the presidency have been caught in a vise between the religious right and the Reform Party. This could be their year to escape. These divisions which have plagued the Republican Party during the last two presidential elections are present again in this year’s campaign. But they may be playing out in a very different fashion.

Since the 1988 campaign witnessed the emergence of the religious right wing as an organized political force, Republican presidential primaries have been captive to their pressure. Though claiming to represent the legacy of Ronald Reagan, this movement showed little of his optimism and populist appeal. All too often, the religious right has appeared to be hard-edged and even nasty–promoting a morality that could be intolerant and judgmental.

Coupled with this, the last three elections also witnessed the continued erosion of public support for politics in general, with low voter turnout in elections and a growing hostility to politicians and government itself.

To some extent, this anti-establishment bent gave rise to the Buchanan candidacy in 1992. Buchanan’s effort combined an appeal to traditional morality with a populist economic message. His challenge to then President George Bush in that year’s Republican primary seriously weakened Bush’s reelection bid.

Many of the angry, anti-establishment voters who backed Buchanan during the 1992 primary, moved to Ross Perot’s independent campaign in the November general election.

Buchanan and Perot differed on some social issues–but both were anti-”politics as usual” politicians and both were populist and protectionist on matters of trade.

So powerful was the perceived power of the religious right that in 1996, Senator Bob Dole recast his political persona and adopted much of their agenda in an effort to co-opt that movement. It was believed that their support was needed to win the Republican nomination. Dole faced down a Buchanan challenge and did emerge victorious. But having moved so far to the right to win the nomination, Dole could not easily move back to the center to win the November election against Bill Clinton.

The victory of the right wing forces in capturing Congress in the low turnout elections of 1994 and their persistence in dragging the Republican Party further to the right, only served to make the party’s chances of winning in 1996 and 2000 more difficult.

This year, the Republican establishment’s chosen candidate, Governor George W. Bush, appeared determined not to be held hostage to the religious right’s narrow agenda. By defining his philosophy as “compassionate conservatism” and by declaring that he would not use an anti-abortion litmus test to choose a running mate or a Supreme Court justice, Bush let it be known that he was determined to hold the middle and not allow the Republicans to be marginalized by a right wing appeal.

Bush was initially challenged by at least 11 other Republican presidential hopefuls, four of them reflected the traditional morality of the religious right. Former Vice President Dan Quayle, Alan Keyes, New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith and Gary Bauer. Of this group, only Keyes remains a candidate–but his is, at best, a marginal effort.

A fifth candidate, Pat Buchanan, also left the race early, and now threatens to run as the Reform Party candidate with a complex message that includes both the anti-establishment populism and protectionism of the Reform movement and a strong anti-abortion stance favored by the religious right.

Three others who left the race, former Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp, Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander, would have run centrist campaigns similar to that envisioned by Bush. Because of the overwhelming political and financial support given to Bush by the Republican establishment–their efforts died.

The two other candidates, of the original 12 were billionaire Steve Forbes and Arizona Senator John McCain. Forbes’ 1996 candidacy was based on a low tax, economic growth message. It failed to win wide support. This year Forbes attempted to adopt the moral message of the extreme right, in an effort to co-opt that movement. This too failed and Forbes has been forced to withdraw from the race.

Essentially, the Republican contest is now a race between two men–Bush and McCain. McCain has sought, like Bush, to declare his independence from the religious right. McCain has a strong conservative voting record on most issues. He has broadened his candidacy’s appeal by adding a populist message and an anti-establishment campaign reform appeal.

McCain’s victory in New Hampshire has shaken up the Republican race in more ways than one. He is either pulling ahead of George W. Bush in some states, or rapidly catching up in others. At the same time, in an effort to stop his insurgent campaign, Bush has been forced to dramatically change his political cause.

To win the next major primary state, South Carolina, Bush has appeared to abandon his “compassionate conservatism” appeal and has developed a more straightforward conservative message. Unlike New Hampshire which, historically has favored independent campaigns, South Carolina is believed to be a more traditional conservative state.

Bush’s first speech in South Carolina was at Bob Jones University–a strongly religious and, some feel, intolerant, institution.

If Bush succeeds in his effort to win South Carolina, he may stop the McCain momentum–but by having appeared to abandon the center and adopt a more hard line conservative line he will also have made his chances of winning in November more difficult.

The populist and anti-establishment thrust of the McCain candidacy is a direct challenge to the religious right and to the elites of the Republican Party but that is not all. He may pose a threat to the Reform Party as well. Despite his disagreement with Perot and Buchanan on the matter of free trade (McCain supports U.S. involvement in the WTO and NAFTA), much of McCain’s message has proved to be appealing to some formerly disaffected and alienated voters. In fact his message and his maverick approach to politics has helped him to capture the same voters who supported Buchanan and Perot in 1992 and 1996.

One analyst looking at the New Hampshire results noted that McCain had “swallowed” the Reform Party in New Hampshire.

This gives some hope to Republicans in 2000. If McCain wins the nomination–the anti-establishment and campaign finance issues will have been taken out from under the Reform Party. In that case, the only issues on which a Republican candidate could run and potentially take votes from a Republican would be the strange amalgam of opposition to abortion and opposition to free trade. This is what a Buchanan campaign would do. But with McCain having stolen much of the Buchanan and Reform appeal, it will be difficult for Buchanan to take much support away from the Republicans. It is more likely that McCain would capture the independent voters who might otherwise have not voted or supported the Reform Party.

And so it appears that in the person of John McCain the Republican Party may have found the escape from the vise that has hurt its national efforts since Ronald Reagan’s successes in the 1980s. With the religious right in disarray and McCain’s reformist and populist message capable of co-opting some of the Reform movement’s strength, Republicans may be able to capture some of the middle ground of the American political debate.

This is not to say that McCain is a moderate on most political issues. In fact on many foreign and domestic policy matters he is quite conservative and holds some rather extremist views on the Middle East.

But thus far in the 2000 Republican primary, McCain has been able to define himself as the “reformer” and anti-establishment independent on a few big issues. The way that the Republican establishment, in the form of the Bush campaign, has attacked McCain has only served to strengthen his appeal.

Given Bush’s organizational and financial advantage, is still may be possible for him to defeat McCain. That is why Bush is attacking McCain so vigorously now. The danger, however, to Republican chances in 2000 is that Bush may, in the process of defeating McCain, paint himself into an establishment/conservative corner. This may give Bush the nomination, but in the process may resuscitate the Reform effort and yield the middle ground of the American political debate to the Democratic nominee.

The next two weeks’ contests in South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona are worth watching, not only for who wins, but how they win.

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