He Thinks Republicans Would Like a Moderate, if One Came Along

March 06, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The arrival here in January of the Republican congressional majorities reportedly coincided with a surge in demand for dry martinis at the better bars. And the day Congress convened, meat toppings outsold vegetable toppings eight to one at Domino's Pizza stores, twice the ratio recorded when Democrats controlled Congress.

So Republicans are gin-swilling carnivores. This does not require revision of stereotypes. But the image of Republicans will be radically altered if Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter wins the party's presidential nomination.

Will he? Consider just one of many problems. The Republican nominating electorate, which is more conservative than the party as a whole (and the party is more homogeneously conservative than ever), is not apt to nominate one of the six Republican senators who opposed President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Do Republicans remember that? Many do; the rest will be reminded.

Why is he running? Russell, Kansas, already is represented in the race. (Mr. Specter grew up in Bob Dole's hometown.) And he is not even the first Jewish Pennsylvanian to seek a presidential nomination. (You have forgotten the l976 attempt by Gov. Milton Shapp, a Democrat?)

Mr. Specter is running because he thinks he can win by rescuing Republicans from what he calls ''the fringe,'' meaning supporters of the two Pats -- Robertson and Buchanan. But if the menace is, as the senator describes it, ''the far-right 5 percent,'' how much rescuing does the other 95 percent need?

So far, he has all to himself the constituency of Republicans for whom abortion rights is the only issue. Perhaps he should wonder more than he seems to about why he has that group to himself. Speaking to The New Republic's Ruth Shalit, an excitable Specter aide exults, ''Forty-three percent of Republicans in New Hampshire say they will vote for a pro-choice candidate. . . . If we get 43 percent of the vote, where do we finish. . . . That's right! We're first! By big numbers.''

But what the Boston Globe poll actually said is that 53, not 43 percent will be ''more inclined'' to vote for a candidate who favors abortion rights. That inclination is a weak reed on which to rest a candidacy.

The theory undergirding Senator Specter's candidacy is that the way to become political lightning is to begin as a political lightning bug. The campaign will practice ''niche marketing'' of the senator to pro-abortion single-issue Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire while the other candidates, all pro-life, splinter the right-to-life constituency. Then when Mr. Specter becomes one of the three survivors of those first two states, the campaign will stress Specter the crimebuster, the former prosecutor and district attorney who wants more prisons and busier death chambers.

A campaign memo outlining Senator Specter's glittering prospects stresses things like: 60 percent of Florida's Republican voters are retirees from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York; and Ohio, Michigan and Illinois are ''large industrial states similar to Pennsylvania,'' and in California's l992 Republican Senate primary ''a moderate'' only narrowly lost to ''a right-winger.''

Not persuaded? Here are two more reasons not to be.

First, few Republicans who favor abortion rights really think those rights are in peril. The Supreme Court as currently constituted will not overturn Roe v. Wade, and if it did, thereby restoring abortion to the status of a practice states could regulate, regulations probably would reflect the current majority support for basic abortion rights. When Republicans controlled the Senate for six years in the l980s, they brought to a vote only the mildest constitutional amendment -- it would not have proscribed abortion, merely have permitted states to set their own policies -- and it fell 18 votes short.

Second, the implied premise of the senator's campaign is market failure -- supposedly the Republican political market is inexplicably not supplying something (''moderate'' presidential candidates) for which there is strong demand. Actually, the long war that divided the party in l9l2 between adherents of President Taft and former president Roosevelt, is long since over. It was the war between conservative Republicans and progressive/Bull Moose/liberal/Rockefeller/moderate Republicans.

It almost seems that there have been more names for the species of Republicans that Mr. Specter is courting than there currently are members of the species. However, he is going to test the ''moderates in the woodwork'' theory, the notion that there are lots of stay-at-home moderates, waiting for their sort of fellow. The result is apt to be a theory slain by facts.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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