WASHINGTON -- One distinguishing characteristic of Republican presidential campaigns down through the post-World War II years, win or lose, has been their businesslike efficiency and effectiveness. While their Democratic counterparts have often been in disarray, the Republicans have built a reputation for having their act together -- until now.
Even in the one election the GOP lost out of the last six -- Gerald Ford's narrow defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976 -- the Ford team pulled together and nearly overcame a 33-point deficit in the polls. One veteran of that campaign, political consultant Doug Bailey, recalls that there was always confidence within the staff that Ford would come back. At the time, he was still trying to shake off the nomination challenge of Ronald Reagan, Bailey notes, and the feeling was that once that challenge was overcome, Ford would start moving. He did, eventually losing by only 2 percent. (One element in that recovery was the replacement of the campaign manager, Rogers Morton, with a fellow named James Baker.)
In the previous Republican loss -- Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 -- the Goldwater team was united in a fervor of ideological bliss for having taken over the party if not, as matters turned out, the country. Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, says the Goldwater campaign was convinced that "the silent majority" of which the Arizona senator spoke would make liars of all the polls; morale -- and efficiency -- remained high until the very end.
That's why the gloom and disorder that beclouds the Bush-Quayle re-election operation these days is so striking, as much as the staggeringly pessimistic polls showing President Bush dropping like a rock. The polls affect the mood, to be sure, but it is much more than that. Key campaign aides are openly critical and even contemptuous of the failure of the White House staff to make political capital of the incumbency, and there is a palpable sense that the president himself is adrift.
These attitudes are at the heart of the yearning in the campaign for the return of Secretary of State James Baker to the helm of the political ship. His reputation as a master political decision-maker and as the unique voice that can get his old friend Bush to snap out of his directionless funk has cast Baker as the only possible miracle-worker in sight. Some campaign insiders sound as if they will put their heads in the nearest oven if Baker doesn't come aboard, and fast.
Republicans are also noted, especially after divisive primary fights, for letting bygones be bygones and getting on with the business of beating the Democrats. But these days the air is filled with criticisms and even carpings from Republicans, particularly on the party's far right, ranging from dissatisfaction with what Bush has done over the past four years to his inability to say with any clarity what he intends to do the next four.
Another Republican political veteran of the 1976 Ford campaign notes that the campaign's relationship with the Ford White House was "excellent," and while there were fights inside the operation, they stayed there, and the campaign was able to put on a face of unity and confidence that is absent in the Bush-Quayle operation today.
The Ford near-comeback was all the more impressive because it took place in the first national election after the Watergate scandal and the Nixon and Agnew resignations that had bloodied the party's reputation in an unprecedented way. Public uncertainty about Carter as a little-known Southern governor obviously played a part, and similar uncertainty about another Southern governor this year could be Bush's best hope, if effectively exploited.
But another veteran Republican strategist, former Reagan campaign manager John Sears, says only half jokingly that "in terms of the inability to sort out and address the issues you have to go back to 1932" -- Herbert Hoover's defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt -- to find a Republican presidential campaign in such bad shape. He says the return of Baker would "put things in better order and the campaign needs him, but that's not going to solve the problem," which is Bush's own inability to say why voters should give him a second term.