Win or lose in November, this will be George Bush's last campaign. This fact, one of the few undisputed in speculation swirling at the Republican National Convention, has turned the Houston gathering into a preliminary round for the 1996 GOP succession.
Of all the candidates on the scene, Mr. Bush's immediate fate is most important to Vice President Dan Quayle. If the president loses, as many Republicans fear he will, Mr. Quayle can be counted out. His negatives and his image as a lightweight could not survive such a blow. Only a Bush victory would keep Mr. Quayle's presidential hopes alive, and even then they would be far from a sure thing.
Waiting in the wings are two formidable Texans, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, soon to be chief of staff, and Sen. Phil Gramm, whose keynote speech failed to hold the attention of convention delegates and bored a national TV audience. Consolation for Senator Gramm is Bill Clinton's emergence as the 1992 Democratic nominee even though he bombed four years earlier with an interminable convention speech. Mr. Gramm is ready to go, and already setting up a pre-campaign organization, regardless of November's outcome.
Like Mr. Quayle, Secretary Baker rises or falls with his friend George Bush. If he can mastermind a come-from-behind victory, he will pile up political points that will serve him well if a second Bush term is reasonably successful. Two potential candidates being discussed at Houston are Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, a Cabinet official second only to Jim Baker, and California Gov. Pete Wilson, embroiled in a state budget crisis.
The Republican outlook for 1996 has a far sharper ideological edge than any foreseeable fight for the Democratic nomination that year. While Senator Gramm epitomizes economic conservatism, Mr. Baker has a more pragmatic reputation and vast experience in many realms of government. Add to the mix Pat Buchanan's social conservatism, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's economic conservatism and libertarian support for abortion rights, Housing Secretary Jack Kemp's populist conservatism with its compassion for the poor -- and what you have is a mighty struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.
Indeed, this is the key subplot in Houston. While attention is rightly focused on the task at hand, which is to tarnish the Clinton image and attack the Democratic record in Congress, the longer-range issue is the future of a political party that has set the ideological agenda and dominated the executive branch for more than a generation.
The Democrats in New York, smelling victory at last, put aside such battles by spurning the leftist elements that long have hobbled the party and settling for a convention and a platform that moved toward the center.
If President Bush loses after accepting a highly conservative platform, we believe a fast GOP comeback would require the nomination of Mr. Baker, Mr. Kemp or another candidate determined to widen, not narrow, the Republican base.