An astonished onlooker watches the Republicans eat their young

February 29, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- The onlooker watched the recent spectacle of the Republicans eating their young with astonishment, and with just a trace of something else. He wasn't a Republican himself, although he'd voted for many of them. In the wake of the 1994 congressional elections, which seemed to represent a major partisan realignment and the imminent triumph of views he'd held for a long time, he'd almost switched his registration. But then he'd put it off.

In his youth, it had seemed to him that Republicans too often showed a mean streak. They just plain didn't like black people, or Jews, or foreigners. Some of them didn't even like Catholics, as they made clear when John Kennedy was running. They always seemed to side with the powerful, and to want to cling to the status quo.

The One True Faith

But that changed over the years, as the Democratic Party, already in possession of what appeared a constitutionally mandated majority in Congress, also became the One True Faith of the privileged classes. The Republicans, out in the cold, no longer thought the status quo so wonderful. They had to rethink what it was they believed in.

They came up with a few fundamental ideas -- individual freedom, limits to the power and scope of the fast-expanding federal government, and a strong national defense in a very dangerous world. They then elected a president, a friendly open man devoid of the old truculent Republican meanness, who expressed those ideas better than anyone else. That was when the onlooker found himself beginning to vote regularly for the GOP.

That president wasn't narrowly partisan. His approach was inclusive. He reached out to the handful of remaining Democratic intellectuals who shared his world view, and installed many of them in key spots in his administration.

This group included people like the academic Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Washington lawyer Max Kampelman, the defense expert Richard Perle from Scoop Jackson's office, and Pat Moynihan's former chief of staff, Elliott Abrams. Of these, all except Mr. Perle had offered their services to President Jimmy Carter less than a year before the 1980 election, and had been brusquely turned down.

(Jay Winik of the University of Maryland, in a brilliant book to be published this spring by Simon & Schuster, explains how these conservative foreign-policy Democrats came to work for a Republican president, and helped him lay the groundwork for the winning of the Cold War.)

After that administration ended, the onlooker remembered, the Republicans had lost their way again. They first elected a weak successor to the president who had unified them, and he piddled away the support he inherited. Then, with the party divided and demoralized, another Carterish Democrat was able to win the presidency.

Again Republicans had to regroup and rethink. Again they developed an inclusive approach based on a few unifying principles, including balancing the budget. And once again they prevailed. Led by a cavalry charge of brand-new candidates for the House of Representatives, they seemed on the brink of total victory. It was exciting. The onlooker started thinking again about joining the party.

But where are the Republicans now? They seem to have three major candidates for president, but these three have pummeled each other so badly they're all unrecognizable, and that hard-won agreement about what the party ought to stand for is in smithereens. The onlooker was relieved he hadn't joined up; in the coming Maryland primary he wouldn't have any idea whom bTC to vote for. The contest has taken on a surreal comic-book quality.

One of the candidates is campaigning like a mean drunk outside a bar, mumbling venomous incoherencies and obviously spoiling for a fight with anyone in clean clothes. Another, although a war hero and no coward, can't seem to decide whether to take on the drunk or just ignore him. The third only wants to avoid getting his new plaid shirt dirty.

Maybe another Republican will come along by convention time. The Democrats, at least, seem to think that's possible. In the current New Republic Michael Lind, a quintessential spokesman for the kind of chi-chi neo-Carterism that passes for Democratic philosophy in 1996, spends a whole column assailing noncandidate Jack Kemp.

Mr. Lind says Mr. Kemp would be a disaster as a nominee because he has supported such no-nos as supply-side economics, a space-based defense system against missile attacks, the flat tax and the gold standard. But to our perplexed onlooker, that sounds as though Mr. Kemp's got something the GOP could use once again -- a few good ideas.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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