Posted on May 17, 1993 in Washington Watch

The fight over Clinton’s economic plan served to give a new sense of unity to the Republican Party and to elevate Senator Robert Dole of Kansas to the position of the party’s recognized national leader.

Back during the campaign Clinton’s slogan—“It’s the economy, stupid”—had focused the national debate on George Bush’s poor record on the economy. The Republicans never quite managed to find a counter-message that would work. During the last three elections they had run successful campaigns by defining their Democratic opponent in a negative way, but that strategy didn’t work in 1992.

The Republicans began by opposing “tax and spend” Democrats, but Clinton didn’t present himself that way. They called themselves the party of internationalism and American strength abroad, but Clinton co-opted these principles and made them part of his own platform. In their most defining issue, the Republicans called themselves the party of family values, but Clinton’s middle-of-the-road stance on these issues made the extreme Republican position seem divisive and mean. This last issue ended up costing Bush and his party some votes.

After the November defeat, the Republican Party looked to be in greater disarray than any other time in recent history. Lacking a clear national leader, they seemed destined for four years of bitter intra-party feuding over the very ideological issues that some feel cost them the election in the first place. And by early this year, a number of different ideological Republican groups were formed, though their primary focus now seems to be as launching pads for one or more potential Republican Presidential candidates in 1996.

Pat Buchanan, who mounted a conservative challenge to George Bush in the 1992 Republican primaries, has continued his bid to move the Republican debate to the right with the formation of the group “the American Cause.” Buchanan is joined on the right by Evangelical Christian leader Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Another Republican group which tried to seize the mantle of party leadership was the Republican Majority Coalition, a group whose leading light is Massachusetts Governor William Weld. Jack Kemp and William Bennett formed still another group which they call Empower America, which has drawn on the strengths and skills of both of its founders. Finally (but not conclusively, for there are others), Texas Senator Phil Graham has been taking high visibility stances on a range of issues in an effort to appear as the chief Republican spokesperson, and has retained his powerful position as head of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee where he controls the funds that the Republicans will use for the 1994 Senate elections.

The issues that divided these groups were principally ideological, and mainly over “values.” And the divisions were serious. Weld represented the moderate camp which supports homosexual and abortion rights, and other issues of personal freedom. Buchanan, Bennett and the Christian Coalition support continued exclusion of these groups and issues from the party. Kemp was attacked early on for selling out the Reagan vision because of his unorthodox view on gun control, balanced budget amendment, unions and individual rights. Bennett began a national crusade for family values and Graham began a self-promotional media blitz.

The January election of Haley Barbour as the Chairman of the Republican Party seemed to be a positive signal to the moderates. For while Barbour is a conservative, he is also a pragmatic party-builder who knows that continued ideological divisions and public splits will not help his party. In an effort to rebuild the Republican “big tent”, he defined his ideological positions like this: “I personally opposed abortion, but our party is based on many issues and a person who agrees with the Republicans on most of our issues and disagrees on a few is welcome to join.

Barbour began a campaign to build rebuild the party based on the grassroots structure of the party. For twelve years the party hadn’t needed such an effort. With a popular President (Reagan) who was swept into power by a landslide election and a strong social movement, the Republican party, in effect, rested on its laurels as the party in power. But now that it is in opposition, it has had to revitalize its base. Barbour announced a plan to organize state by state, to bring new blood into the Republican National Committee, and to prepare for Republican victories in 1994.

Clinton’s economic stimulus proposal turned out to be a boon to Barbour’s efforts. When the Republican filibuster forced the Senate to take a two week recess before reconvening in mid-April, Barbour used the time well. He organized 19 town meetings in 13 states using a combination of 28 Republican members of Congress and 3 Senators to attract crowds and the media, all targeted toward undermining public confidence in Clinton’s stimulus program in the hopes of establishing a base for Republican candidates in 1994.

Barbour reflected the feeling of many Republicans when he said in April that Clinton’s economic package was a great help to the Republican Party because it drew attention away from the divisive social issues debate and brought them back to a Republican staple—economic issues.

But if the economic stimulus debate was helpful to Barbour, it was a real boost for Senate minority Leader Robert Dole. Dole has emerged as the real star of the last round of debate in the Senate. In fact, by leading the defeat of the stimulus package he got a boost in national prominence that Clinton and the Democrats had hoped to get for themselves. Dole has achieved the position he has long sought for himself: undisputed leader of the Republican Party. The nemeses of his past have all left the stage: Nixon, Reagan and bush. And now, after a few months of bitter exchanges within the Party’s ideological contenders for leadership, the pragmatic Washington insider Dole has parleyed his Senate leadership role to take center stage against the Clinton economic package.

Dole’s rise to leadership has been a dramatic one. During the Depression of the 1930s Dole lived with the family in the basement of their own home because they had to rent the upstairs in order to pay the mortgage. As a young soldier in Europe during the Second World War Dole was severely wounded and spent three years in hospitals recuperating and learning how to walk again, though he never regained use of his right hand. Upon his return to his home in Kansas, he went to college and earned a law degree. After serving a term in the state legislature, Dole settled down to eight years as county attorney before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960. Following eight years of service in the House, Dole ran successfully for the Senate in 1968, and was elected to his fifth term in 1992.

It was in the Senate that Bob Dole emerged as a potential Republican leader. He was selected by Richard Nixon as chairman of the Republican Party in 1971, but the replaced by George Bush in 1973. He was Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976 when the Republican ticket lost to Jimmy Carter. Then Dole ran for President himself in 1980 and lost to Ronald Reagan, then saw Reagan select George Bush as his running mate. 1988 would have seemed to be Dole’s last chance to win the Republican nomination, but once again George Bush snagged the prize. But Dole was the first prominent Republican to find anything heartening about their loss of the presidency last November. “Fifty-seven percent of the Americans who voted in the Presidential election voted against Bill Clinton,” Dole said. :”And I intend to represent that majority on the floor of the U.S. Senate. [As Senate Minority Leader] if Bill Clinton has a mandate, then so do I.”

As a master of the nuances of Senate and Congressional strategy, Dole established a clear course as the 103rd Congress began. Early in the debate over Clinton’s stimulus proposal, the right wing of the Senate Republicans wanted to propose an alternative budget plan to Clinton and debate the differences. But Dole knew that that would be a losing strategy. The job as he saw it was to defeat the Democratic plan, and to make it unpopular by defining it as a typical tax and spend Democratic plan.

Dole always was one of the better known Senators, but he is now even more than before considered to be a serious presidential candidate even though he hasn’t given any indication whether or not he will run. He has already traveled to New Hampshire and Iowa (the first two states to hold primaries in 1996), but so too have Graham, Kemp, and former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

The Republicans are actually putting their plans for 1996 into motion early because of Clinton’s new vulnerabilities.

Recent polls still show Clinton’s favorability rating down to 49%, and another shows that if the 1996 election were held today, Clinton and Perot would tie with 35% of the vote, while Dole would pick up 25% and Kemp 20%.

Vin Weber, a prominent Republican star in his own right and possible presidential candidate after 1996, recently noted: “A few months ago I couldn’t identify a single Republican candidate for ‘96 because the feeling was that Clinton was not Carter… [but] all that has changed.

Whether or not Bob Dole has the ability to retain his leadership remains to be seen. He will be 73 in 1996, an age that many feel will put him out of contention for the presidency. There is also the problem of Dole’s acerbic tongue—which has gotten him into trouble in the past and cost him public support.

The more general problem facing Dole and Party Chairman Haley Barbour in 1994 and 1996 is curbing the grass roots strength of the hard-line ideological right wing of the party. While Barbour was able to win the party Chairmanship and Dole was able to retain his leadership role in the Senate, there is a real concern that the Christian fundamentalist and conservative right wing forces in the party are stronger at the grass roots level and could shape the electoral chances of any prospective candidate. If they emerge as a dominant force in the Republican Party in 1994, the party’s chances of retaking the White House in 1996 will diminish, just as they did last November after the Republican National Convention left too many voters with the image of the Republican Party as a party of intolerance and exclusion.

Obviously, the most significant problem the Republicans will face is posed by President Clinton himself. If he can rebound and reorganize his White House, he may once again capture that national debate and force the Republicans onto the defensive.


A note on a past article:

Two articles ago I gave a hopeful assessment of the peace process. After noting all of the positive changes that had occurred since Israel’s illegal expulsion of 400 Palestinians to Lebanon, I concluded with a comment that read:

“Formal statements indicate that no one wants this round to fail. If actions support these statements, the ninth round could in many ways be the first round of real talks…”

The reason behind the difficulty in the ninth round was precisely that actions had not lived up to statements. Israel did not deliver on its promises in a timely manner and, it appears, neither did the U.S. A real effort is being made to squeeze a victory out of the impasse. It is a victory that all sides want—but actions speak louder than words and so far Israel and to some extent the U.S., have only been whispering.

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