Class struggle in the Grand Old Party

February 17, 1996|By Daniel Berger

THE PARTY out of power endures a struggle between its head and heart, pragmatism and ideology, appealing to the broad center of uncommitted voters or keeping faith with the ardent loyalists.

The shakeout in the Republican Party, going into New Hampshire Tuesday, is starting to clarify along these lines. But this will be only the first primary. The caucuses are less representative of the electorate.

Sen. Bob Dole goes in as the champion of Republican orthodoxy, against deficits and big government, for free trade and robust business, against crime, unsympathetic to the poor, uncomfortable policing private lives.

He won poorly in Iowa, doing worse than in 1988, and is vulnerable. Audiences find him unsympathetic and wooden. He is 72.

If endorsements by responsible office-holders dictated outcomes, Mr. Dole would be unstoppable. He is the favorite of the nation's Republican governors and senators, the standard-bearer of the governing class.

Their support is growing, despite Mr. Dole's poor performance, in response to the Buchanan challenge. Sen. Phil Gramm intended to champion the right wing, combining appeal to the Christian right with his senatorial record and fund-raising prowess. Pat Buchanan stole his constituency in Louisiana and Iowa.

Mr. Buchanan roars into New Hampshire as one Republican who can enthuse voters. He came a close second in Iowa as an anti-abortion absolutist. That cause is less potent in New Hampshire, but Mr. Buchanan is pro-gun and a rampant economic nationalist, against NAFTA, WTO and any acronym involving trade.

There are a lot of old mills converted into craft studios, and jobless factory workers who don't do crafts, in New Hampshire. Mr. Buchanan has been chosen by the Manchester Union-Leader.

Populist crusader

That pits Mr. Buchanan against not only Mr. Dole but the fat cats and the received wisdom of the Republican Party.

Sounding like the last angry socialist, he excoriates the corporations that transfer jobs abroad while in profit, and the CEOs who downsize them. He is a populist crusading to overthrow the establishment of his own side.

This makes Republican leaders uncomfortable. Mr. Buchanan is a gifted polemicist who continually must decide whether to follow his ego into fringe demagogy, and who until now has desisted.

His harangue to the 1992 Republican National Convention electrified the nation and alienated the center. Larry Pratt, his campaign co-chairman until Thursday, is a recurring character in Kenneth S. Stern's alarming new book, ''A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate.''

Mr. Buchanan creates the fervor needed for a third party of the right -- to torpedo Republican chances -- but has so far shunned the temptation to form one.

Lamar Alexander is the third major candidate coming out of Iowa, a former office-holder endorsed by other former office-holders. He is uncertain how conservative to position himself, but appeals to moderate and gentler Republicanism.

He is there if Senator Dole stumbles, having elbowed Sen. Richard Lugar aside. Mr. Alexander hopes to catch fire in the primaries and then steal Dole support. Such things do happen.

Were Iowa everything, Steve Forbes and his supply-side revival would be over. But caucuses are less susceptible to his advertising than primaries. The polls, notoriously poor predictors of caucuses, do better in New Hampshire, where they show him still a player.

What Republicans really need from New Hampshire is turnout. Iowa's was well below 1988. Republicans who don't care now whom the party nominates won't work hard for him in November.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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