The Republican Predicament

March 04, 1995|By DANIEL BERGER

The presidency is the Republicans' to lose in 1996. They may. Bill Clinton is remarkably unpopular in the fickle opinion polls, but has not lost yet.

Mr. Clinton is eminently beatable. But he must be beaten by someone. Therein lies the Republicans' dilemma. Like other oppositions here and abroad, now and in the past, the party cannot decide whether to be true to the core beliefs of its most zealous supporters, or to the broad center of the electorate.

The Democrats kept themselves on the horns of this dilemma and out of the White House for years. The Republican Party today is a mirror image of the liberal Democratic Party of the 1970s and '80s.

It is vigorous, combative, dedicated, energetic and idea-driven. It knows what it stands for. It is not representative of majority thinking, which is more tentative.

The Democrats are reduced to me-tooism, which is not admirable but sometimes works. The Republican predicament is that someone like Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas might win the party's nomination but not the general election, while someone like Gov. Pete Wilson of California could win the election but possibly not the nomination.

The primary electorate is dedicated and conservative. Senator Gramm's abrasive extremism appeals to it. He is not a compromiser but a name-caller, an ideal speaker to a rally of the faithful.

Governor Wilson is a faceless, gray-suited man who runs the PTC largest state, whose governor is always a credible candidate for president.

While mayor of San Diego, Mr. Wilson without federal aid built a light rail to the Mexican border, which as governor he hopes Mexicans will not board.

He was a U.S. senator and knows the capital mysteries. He was re-elected last year despite the California recession and natural disasters.

Mr. Wilson is the sort of Republican with the best chance to oust President Clinton. He seems a moderate, though he has been trying to recast himself in a harsher light for the primaries, where he is not yet a declared candidate.

Mr. Wilson presumably could capture the uncommitted center in November 1996. But he may well be too bland, moderate and uninteresting to win Republican primaries.

In earlier times, when few states had primaries, national conventions manipulated by bosses chose party nominees, largely on the basis of who could win. Now the nomination is dictated to the convention by the party rank and file.

Democrats know all about this. They catered to themselves rather than to the broad center, with nominees George S. McGovern ('72), Walter F. Mondale ('84) and Michael S. Dukakis ('88). Since 1968, only a couple of obscure Southern governors self-defined as centrists, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992, broke through the predicament to the White House.

Republicans have become adept at fashioning ''wedge issues'' that drive the Democratic coalition apart, some of it into Republican arms. Right now they are burnishing a backlash against affirmative action, to the point where prominent Democrats are trying to water down rather than oppose the undoing of civil-rights legislation.

But the Democrats have a wedge issue to use against Republicans in abortion rights. In nominating Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. to be surgeon general, President Clinton stumbled on this issue's resilient potency. Opposition to Dr. Foster, demanded by the zealous, is a trap for such moderate Republicans as Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan. and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Me.

Sen. Bob Dole, the Republicans' elderly front-runner, says abortion is no longer an issue. Doesn't he wish.

Like Lamar Alexander, the obscure border-stater, Mr. Dole means to be seen as a conservative in the primaries and a moderate in the election. Luck to them both. The ideal Republican candidate is a pro-lifer for the primaries and pro-choice for the election without self-contradiction, and is not in sight.

The culture war that candidate Pat Buchanan forecast at the 1992 Republican National convention threatens to break out, but within the Republican Party, between the neo-conservative intelligentsia who run the think tanks and the Christian right who run the phone banks.

The Republican predicament is the probability that only a zealous right-to-lifer can win the nomination while only a moderate pro-choicer can win the General Election. President Clinton may not deserve this, but it is his lifeline to re-election.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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