The right challenges Bush

September 14, 1990|By Steven Stark

AMONG the more intriguing ways the crisis in Iraq is affecting our domestic politics is the extent to which it has alienated the already disaffected Republican right wing. That means President Bush -- despite his high ratings in the polls -- could face a re-election challenge in 1992, not only from the Democrats but from within his own party. And that could spell trouble for the GOP.

Since Ronald Reagan left office, the GOP right wing has found little to love in Bush, who has proved to be more Maine Yankee than Texas conservative, and thus to the left of much of his party. But two events this summer crystallized its discontent.

First, Bush broke the faith by retracting his no-new-taxes pledge, forcing much of the Republican congressional leadership to break with him on that issue. Following Bush's reversal, a few conservatives such as Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips and David Keene indicated they might oppose the president in 1992, according to a published report.

Second, many right-wingers are also upset about American involvement in the Mideast. With the Cold War over, these conservatives have become neo-isolationists, insisting that America's commitments abroad must be circumscribed.

bTC Conservatives such as columnist Patrick Buchanan, Tom Bethell, editor of the American Spectator, and Edward Luttwak, a foreign policy specialist at the conservative Center for Strategic Affairs, have become the most vocal critics of the administration's foreign policy and have questioned, in some cases, America's growing troop commitment in the Mideast.

Polls show the neo-isolationists have few supporters in the electorate. But over time, as Americans tire of the human and economic cost of the Mideast mission, their numbers are bound to swell.

Armed with those two issues, a right-wing challenger to Bush has a platform. But both history and the primary calendar favor a challenge too. As to history, it is more the rule than the exception today that incumbent presidents face challenges from within their own party. Since 1952, only Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan have run uncontested as incumbents in the primaries.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter had to face Edward Kennedy and Jerry Brown. In 1976, Gerald Ford barely got by Reagan. Even popular presidents have confronted challengers. In 1972, Richard Nixon had to run against U.S. Reps. John Ashbrook and Pete McCloskey, and in 1964 Lyndon Johnson was opposed by George Wallace.

The calendar helps a challenger too. The primary season opens in Iowa -- Bush's weakest state in 1988. (Bush finished third in the caucuses behind Robert Dole and Pat Robertson, and more decisively there to Michael Dukakis than in any other state but Rhode Island.) Then the trail turns to New Hampshire, where anti-tax sentiment is stronger than almost anywhere and where Bush barely defeated Dole in 1988.

If California finally ends up moving its primary to behind New Hampshire's, that would help a conservative challenger too. With its base of Orange County Republicans, California has always had one of the most staunchly conservative state parties in the country. Remember that in 1964, it was one of the few states where Barry Goldwater could win a primary.

Who might make the race? Robertson, a 1988 rival, is a possibility. (On his TV program, he characterized Bush's tax reversal as "Read my lips; I also lie.") But the most plausible candidate would be Buchanan.

Articulate, well-known from his regular television appearances on CNN and the McLaughlin Group, and admired by conservatives because of his stints for Reagan and Nixon, Buchanan is the type of protest candidate who has traditionally done well in primaries.

Like Jesse Jackson and George Wallace, Buchanan knows how to "send them a message." The Washington press corps, enthralled by an unexpected contest and the joy of seeing one of their own seek the presidency, would take care of the rest.

Could Buchanan win? Probably not. Bush, after all, is the incumbent and a popular one at that. But like Ashbrook against Nixon in 1972, a Buchanan candidacy could push Bush to the right -- perhaps forcing him to make platform concessions or keep Dan Quayle on the ticket. And, if events sour in the Mideast, Buchanan would be standing in the right place at the right time. It's an odd thought -- Pat Buchanan, following in the steps of George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy as the nation's anti-war candidate.

Steven Stark writes a column for the Boston Globe.

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