Nancy Reagan and the Republican elites

November 02, 1994|By Mona Charen

THE REPUBLICAN Party is having, as former President Bush might put it, a gosh darned hard time getting used to winning. The race for Senate in Pennsylvania is close, with Republican Rick Santorum headed for an upset over Democrat Harris Wofford. But up pops Teresa Heinz, the widow of Republican Sen. John Heinz, to publicly ridicule Mr. Santorum as "Forrest Gump with an attitude." New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, endorses Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, endorses Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Every white-shoe Republican in Washington seems to have made it a point to express dismay at the candidacy of Oliver North, (yes, Elliot Richardson, that means you), culminating with a public slap from former first lady Nancy Reagan, who reiterated her familiar plaint that Mr. North "kept things from my husband."

What goes on here? Poised to take working control of the Congress for the first time in half a century, the Republican Party is in a tizzy. The old-line, mildly liberal, upper-crust Republicans like Elliot Richardson and Teresa Heinz cannot abide the idea of "their" party being controlled by a bunch of polyester-wearing, born-again hayseeds (as they see it). They are not frightened by the religious right so much as disdainful of it. There is some of that same attitude, alas, in Nancy Reagan, who always saw conservatives as the people who wanted to send her husband off a cliff with all flags flying, and who did her best to undermine their influence in the Reagan administration.

Nancy Reagan has another agenda as well, which is to preserve for history the idea that Ronald Reagan was a dupe of his underlings during Iran/Contra. Whether this is true, we will probably never know.

Two weeks ago, I was predicting that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would lose his bid for a sixth term in the Senate. No longer. Having watched most of the two debates between challenger Mitt Romney and Mr. Democratic Liberalism, I can no longer predict that Mr. Romney will win.

For a while, it was looking as if Mr. Romney -- an articulate, appealing family man -- had been selected by central casting to provide a contrast with the beefy, dissolute, hard-living senior senator. And he seemed to be saying some of the necessary things, for example, that the welfare state, of which Sen. Kennedy is proud, has failed.

But Mr. Romney proved himself just another pretty face in his two debates with Mr. Kennedy, forswearing "partisanship," endorsing more and better student loans and promising to make government work better rather than vowing to scale government back.

Mr. Romney might have listened to the applause for a gauge of what is working this political year. The lines that elicited the most enthusiastic applause were the most conservative. When Mr. Romney denounced the proposed government takeover of the health care system, when he talked tough on crime, the audiences loved it. But when he retreated into talk of bipartisanship, when he declined to defend the 1980s, when he agreed with Sen. Kennedy on anything, the audiences sat on their hands.

Mitt Romney supporters protest that he is running in a Democratic, liberal stronghold, not Florida or Virginia. That's true. But Mitt Romney would not have entered the race had Ted Kennedy not shown weakness in the polls in the past few years. Mitt Romney seems to not believe his own campaign rhetoric about the need for a change. He perhaps forgot that Kennedy is not without strengths as a campaigner, and one of those strengths is a firm, even passionate commitment to his ideology.

In the face of that zeal, a moderate, less-of-the-same approach is bound to fail.

The passionate conservatives -- Mr. Santorum, Jeb Bush and many others will not suffer Mitt Romney's fate. Oliver North will win by a comfortable margin -- the quaking of liberal Republicans notwithstanding.

The electorate is about to deliver a much-needed correction to the ruling Democratic elites -- and the Republican elites will just have to get used to it, too.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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