Rebels' followers ponder the cause

March 14, 2000|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- What now for the rebels?

Not Sen. John McCain. He'll return to the Senate, continue his struggle against Big Money and Big Tobacco and bask in the conviction that the Senate colleagues who dislike him so much are no heroes outside Capitol Hill. Not former Sen. Bill Bradley, either. He'll lope back to the sidelines, don a frayed tweed jacket and think big thoughts.

The big question in American politics today is: What now for the people who joined these men's crusades?

Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley ran against Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, respectively, but they really ran against something bigger. They ran against the campaign-finance system. They ran against the notion that elected party officials should be able to recapture the power to control the work and the destinies of the major political parties that they lost in the early 1970s.

But Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley also ran against politics itself, and that was the attraction, the fascination -- and the downfall -- of both men.

Their campaigns flared because voters liked the idea of joining a rebellion against a system that seemed closed, contrived and craven. Their campaigns died last week because professional politicians closed ranks against the rebellion and quelled it.

"Politicians do not like this kind of rebellion," says former Democratic Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, who now heads the Public Policy Institute of the University of Southern Illinois.

"We like the predictable rather than the unpredictable. Senators and governors do not like uncertainty."

The unease among American voters remains even if the challenges of Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley have faded. But now there is no fleck of sand around which the pearl of protest can grow.

For months the insurrectionists in American politics (plus a lot of people who went along for a lark, enjoying the spectacle and feeling good about themselves for flinging their bodies onto the wildest ride in the nation's political theme park) had a safe and even respectable haven. Joining a revolution by siding with an elected senator and genuine mainstream hero married to a beer magnate's daughter (Mr. McCain of Arizona) or an erudite onetime lawmaker with a wife who teaches comparative literature (Mr. Bradley of New Jersey) made rebellion easy, cost-free and risk-free.

Besides, a lot of the rebels really enjoyed the experience. But the rebellion is over, and so is the free ride.

There remains no safe haven in American politics right now; there's a huge leap between voting for Mr. McCain or Mr. Bradley and voting for one of the two likely nominees of the Reform Party -- the commentator Patrick J. Buchanan or the eclectic entrepreneur Ross Perot.

Even so, advocates of campaign-finance overhaul believe the Bradley and McCain campaigns helped their cause.

"We benefit from this," says Fred Wertheimer, a former president of Common Cause, the self-styled citizens' lobby. "We have never seen this issue injected into a presidential-nominating process and a national debate in the way it was this year. All four of the candidates wound up at least proclaiming themselves on the issue."

But with Republican operatives prepared to talk about Mr. Gore's fund-raising zeal in 1996 and with Democrats leering at the unprecedented $70 million that Mr. Bush raised, the two apparent nominees seem unlikely rebels.

The biggest rebellion in modern American history, the 19 percent that Mr. Perot won in the 1992 election, dissipated in part because President Clinton grafted the rebels onto his own fragile coalition and satisfied them by addressing one of their concerns, the deficit, even though Mr. Clinton ran on stimulating the economy, not ending the deficit.

But the McCain/Bradley rebellion could persist as a low-grade fire under the political landscape, waiting to be ignited again, not likely by Mr. Bradley but possibly by Mr. McCain.

There's precedence for this in recent Republican history.

In 1976, former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California mounted an insurrection against the Republican establishment, and though President Gerald R. Ford prevailed in that nomination fight, the Democrats won the election and Mr. Reagan came roaring back four years later.

Now, at a time when many Republicans fear that the Reagan coalition of 1980 itself is running out of its bloodstream, Mr. McCain may be repeating the process. If Mr. Bush loses in 2000, Mr. McCain, who already is arguing that the Republican coalition must be rebuilt, might try again four years later.

Dream debate: Sen. John McCain vs. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Or dream primary struggle: Sen. John McCain vs. Sen. Rudy Giuliani in New Hampshire. As Mr. Bradley used to say about his own unlikely crusade: It could happen.

David M. Shribman is a syndicated columnist.

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