Posted on March 04, 1996 in Washington Watch

The Republican primaries have been like an amusement park rollercoaster ride, with both party leaders and supporters holding their breath at each dip and turn.

As I predicted over a year ago, it is proving quite difficult for any of the current Republican candidates to hold together the winning coalition assembled by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The economic conservatives who believe in drastically reducing taxes and the size of the government, have collided head-on with the party’s social conservatives whose primary concerns are moral issues.

At one point it was the nearly unanimous opinion of analysts that Senator Bob Dole would be capable of maintaining unity between these two powerful constituencies. As he prepared for his presidential campaign, the Senator took a series of steps to reposition himself to win favor with both segments of the GOP. Forsaking his moderate and pragmatic past, Dole endorsed positions against abortion, gun control and homosexuality, and for setting a rigid timetable for reducing government spending and balance the federal budget.

While ideologues from the two wings of the party were somewhat unconvinced by the Senator’s “conversions,” the Republican establishment saw Doles’ moves as evidence of his pragmatism and commitment to lead a united party to the White House, and rushed to endorse his candidacy.

With the Republican victories in November 1994, Bob Dole became the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, which is the most prestigious position in the U.S. Congress. He has raised more money than any of his rivals for the Republican nomination, and accumulated more endorsements than all of his competitors put together.

But what neither Dole nor the Republican party leadership counted on was that even deeper currents were at work in the nation and among the party faithful.

For most of 1995, Bob Dole couldn’t establish himself as the national party leader. For the first part of the new year Dole was eclipsed by the headline-stealing antics of the new Republican Speaker of the House New Gingrich’s radical “Contract with America.” As the “Contract” stalled and the press lost interest in Gingrich, the spotlight did not fall on Dole, but focused on the titillating prospect of a presidential campaign by retired General Colin Powell. Powell’s highly publicized book tour and his flirtation with presidential politics lasted almost two months.

Following that distraction, the nation’s attention reverted to Gingrich, who was leading the balanced budget campaign against the Democratic White House. For weeks it was Gingrich, not Dole, who appeared before the press to challenge President Clinton and, after failing to reach a compromise with the White House, delivered on his promise to shut down the federal government.

It was not until December that Dole got the upper hand in Washington and the press. But as a disgusted public watched what many have come to describe as “politics as usual” in Washington, the presidential primaries were introducing some new characters and new issues into the national political discourse. One-by-one, these candidates emerged and into the media spotlight which catapulted their candidacies into national prominence.

The first to gain attention was the “gimmicky” plaid shirt-wearing former Governor of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, whose candidacy unusually self-contradictory. His plaid shirt is designed to appeal to average Americans who are fed up with “insider” Washington politics. But Alexander’s ambition is to win enough support to convince the Republican party establishment (the insiders) to support his candidacy over that of Dole’s, as he argues that he would make a better candidate against Bill Clinton than the senate Majority Leader.

Next, the press brought its spotlight to bear on millionaire Steve Forbes and his proposal to eliminate the current tax system in favor of a 17% flat tax. Forbes is also running as an outsider, and is very critical of Washington politics. His relentless campaign spending financed by his personal wealth has forced the press and the public to take his campaign seriously. Forbes has spent in excess of $4 million dollars on advertising in each of several states.

After victories in two Republican caucuses (in Louisiana and New Hampshire), CNN commentator became the next “flavor of the week” for the national press. A visitor to any newsstand last week saw Buchanan’s face on the cover of most national news magazines. More than Alexander and Forbes, Buchanan is running the most “outsider” challenge to Dole and the Republican establishment.

While Alexander and Forbes fit more comfortably in the camp of the economic conservatives, Buchanan is the leading the charge of the social conservatives. And while Alexander and Forbes have alienated the strong camp of the social conservatives through their ambivalent stands on abortion and homosexuality, Buchanan has enraged the economic conservatives with his populist rhetoric and protectionist ideology.

As these candidates deepened the divide between the two camps, Dole’s efforts to maintain unity are suffering. Emboldened by Buchanan’s victories and his uncompromising rhetoric, leading groups on the religious right wing of the Republican party have strengthened their opposition to removing the anti-abortion language from the 1996 Republican party platform. They also have made it clear that they will not support the Republican ticket in November if the presidential and vice presidential candidates are not both firmly committed to their anti-abortion stance.

Equally uncompromising are the more moderate elites in the Republican party who have launched a two-week-long blistering attack against “Buchananism,” calling it extremism and, in some instances, fascism.

But try though they may, the Republican party establishment, which seemed so confident and unified one year ago, has not been able to stop the break-up of their coalition. This points to one overlooked issue of concern in this year’s race.

Despite their deep differences in policy, Forbes and Buchanan do have one thing in common. Neither has held elected public office before and neither is a part of the Republican establishment. It unnerves the party leadership that in most states that have voted thus far, more than 40% of the total vote has gone to the two candidates who are running against the party itself.

This inability of the party and its apparatus to control its voters is deeply problematic. The more the establishment attacks Buchanan, for example, the stronger he becomes in the minds of those voters who are supporting him for his anti-establishment rhetoric. This is the same voter alienation and anger that weakened George Bush in 1992 and gave rise to the Perot campaign that destroyed Republican chances that year.

The issues facing the Republican establishment today is not whether or not their favorite candidate, Bob Dole, can win. That has been eclipsed by a deeper concern: whether or not whoever wins can restore the unity of the Republican coalition, and win back the confidence of the sizable minority of alienated voters, who the party will need back in its camp to have a fighting chance in November’s presidential election.

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