Winning the election or control of the party? CAMPAIGN 1996

Republican Convention

August 12, 1996|By George F. Will

SAN DIEGO -- What an undulating road Republicans have traveled in the 32 years since last they convened in California. Undulating, and perhaps circular.

Republicans are, in a sense, back in San Francisco and in 1964, riven by fissures as deep as those that divide them from Democrats. As a result, they are in danger of being on the receiving end of another demonstration of the porcelain brittleness of political prosperity.

A party convention is supposed to inspirit the faithful, prompting them to stiffen their sinews, summon up their blood and sally forth to fight for the nominee.

Dole's cemetery

But last Wednesday's platform compromise on abortion language did not entirely lay to rest the danger that this convention could be the cemetery of Bob Dole's hopes, because for many conveners, electing the nominee is not the principal point of the exercise.

Republican elected officials, with anxiety in their hearts and self-preservation on their minds, are preoccupied with pre-emptive evasion of what they think could be a fearsome undertow from the top of the ticket.

As for the delegates, most are not active in politics simply to win elections. Rather, their primary purpose is to preserve the party as a bastion of embattled values. More than half the delegates are evangelical Christians and they regard the party as something akin to a church militant in an unconverted world.

This fact is not noted in disparagement. Such delegates dignify politics by their gravity. And remarkable civility obtains. The media may portray the convention's factions the way Auden portrayed Europe's nations in 1939:

And the living nations wait,

Each sequestered in its hate.

There actually are few haters here. However, two groupscall them the politicians and the prophetsare sequestered in their bubbles of mutual incomprehension. The key to comprehending the prophets is in what they take to be the lesson of 1964: It is good to win elections, but more important to secure control of the party.

These 32 years have been years of emotional whiplash for Republicans and conservatism. The tumultuous San Francisco convention of 1964 was an Appomattox where conservatives essentially won a civil war that had alternately raged and simmered in the party since 1912, when more liberal Republicans bolted with Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose insurgency and the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft, finished third in November.

In November 1964 the conservatives' candidate lost 44 states and the congressional party was pulverized, but in 1966 Republicans surged in congressional races and in 1968 a Republican won the White House. In 1974 his resignation took a terrible toll on congressional Republicans.

In 1980, 1984 and 1988 Republican presidential candidates won of 150 state contests. In 1992 the Republican president received the smallest portion of the popular vote any incumbent has won since Taft. Twenty-four months later Republicans demolished 40 years of Democratic dominance of Congress. Twenty-one months after that, Republicans seem bewildered by having somehow made a sow's ear from that silk purse.

Putting the Republican roller coaster back on a rising trajectory will require more than the exercise in retrospection suggested by the Dole campaign official who says, "Our argument will be, 'Remember the first two years of the Clinton administration.' What would a second term look like if he is not constrained by needing to win re-election?"

Actually, that argument might cause Republicans to focus on the task of controlling Congress and might complicate the task of convincing the country that removing Mr. Clinton is important for more than aesthetic reasons.

During those first two years President Clinton could not get a Democrat-controlled Congress to break the filibuster that blocked his economic "stimulus" package.

No health votes

Not a single congressional vote was cast for his health care plan. His only notable achievement, NAFTA, was produced by Republicans, against the opposition of a majority of congressional Democrats. And by far the largest event of his second two years has been welfare reform that repeals a landmark entitlement dating from the New Deal.

It was once said of a British politician that he had "risen without a trace." So has Mr. Clinton. He has risen by not resisting the conservative updraft. The only trace of him on the nation is the smear left by his oleaginous willingness to do whatever it takes to survive in a conservative era. Hence the plain truth is that he is the candidate who lacks a vision.

Mr. Dole has one (the nation energized by less and more reasonable government; individuals empowered by increased disposable income and school choice), and if it is hard to distinguish, that is only because it is indistinguishable from the conventional wisdom of this conservative country, which still could embrace him.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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