Widening the GOP message

January 12, 1999|By Donald Brownstein

IT'S NOT the first time that a political party has been tugged in different directions. But the emerging Republican presidential race and the congressional battle over impeachment are sending the country fundamentally contradictory messages: One trying to broaden the GOP's appeal, the other narrowing it. The party's fate in 2000 may turn on which of these signals leaves a more lasting impression.

As GOP consultant Ed Gillespie points out, the Republican presidential field is likely to feature an unusually large number of candidates attempting to reach out beyond the party's usual supporters. Elizabeth Dole, who edged toward the race last week, offers a path-breaking candidacy that could help combat the party's problems with women. With his "compassionate conservatism," Texas Gov. George W. Bush (who will announce his plans this spring) has shown formidable strength among Latinos, African Americans and women.

Arizona Sen. John McCain's maverick iconoclasm reaches reform-minded independents. Even former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, though in some ways more conventional, has formulated an intriguing agenda on tax reform and education aimed squarely at the young (often suburban) parents whom President Clinton has peeled away from the GOP.

Three of the other likely contenders -- magazine publisher Steve Forbes, former Vice President Dan Quayle and social conservative activist Gary Bauer -- are aiming to assemble more traditional conservative coalitions. And Patrick J. Buchanan, who's considering another bid, is a category unto himself with his unique blend of anti-corporate, culturally conservative populism.

But the emerging dynamic of the race is likely to force all of the serious contenders to broaden their appeal. That's a function both of the size of the field and of the composition of the electorate.

The Republican primary electorate is much less monolithically conservative than most people (including many candidates) assume. Depending on the poll, somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of 1996 GOP primary voters described themselves as "very conservative." A slightly larger percentage called themselves moderates, with the numbers rising in places such as California and Illinois.

The decisive swing bloc -- 40 percent and more in some states -- are those who consider themselves "somewhat conservative." That's a group GOP pollster Whit Ayres describes as "mainstream Republicans": economic conservatives who aren't hankering for revolution and probably see such figures as Bob Dole and George Bush the elder as the closest reflections of their views. If anything, says Mr. Ayres, in the backlash against impeachment, Republicans are growing even more likely to call themselves moderates or just "somewhat conservative."

These underlying divisions in the electorate and the lengthening list of potentially attractive candidates point toward one large conclusion. With so many contenders splintering votes in both the center and the right, no one is likely to win the nomination just by dominating one wing of the party. Instead, the next GOP nominee is likely to be the candidate who can establish the broadest appeal across the party -- especially to the mainstream, "somewhat conservative" Republicans.

Inclusive message

This could help the GOP because it will encourage its presidential hopefuls to formulate an inclusive message that might widen the party's audience in the general election as well. Indeed, many Republicans believe their problems in the polls will recede once the presidential contenders seize the spotlight from the congressional leadership.

The problem with that assumption is that no presidential candidate is an island. As much as they can redefine their parties, presidential nominees are also inexorably colored by the way the public views their parties to begin with. Both Democrat Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Republican Bob Dole in 1996 thought of themselves as centrists, and both attracted the broad support during the primaries that the next GOP nominee will need. Yet Mr. Mondale suffered enormously from association with a permissive liberalism symbolized by the "San Francisco Democrats," and Mr. Dole's candidacy was hurt by Democratic charges that the country couldn't risk giving unified control of the White House and Congress to GOP "extremists."

Though they have convinced themselves otherwise, congressional Republicans may have ingrained a party image of zealotry at least as damaging as either of those precedents. Since the 1997 budget deal provoked a revolt on the right, the GOP congressional leadership has spent the past 18 months responding almost entirely to its core conservative supporters. That inclination has reached compulsive levels with the effort to impeach and remove Mr. Clinton -- over the opposition of two-thirds of the country.

The result has been an act of extraordinary political self-isolation, with recent polls showing nearly 60 percent of voters expressing an unfavorable view of the GOP.

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