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GENTLEMEN, CRANK UP YOUR EGOS : THE RUN FOR THE PRESIDENCY IS OFF TO A FAST START. HOW FURIOUS WILL IT BE? CAN CLINTON WIN? CAN THE GOP EMERGE UNSCATHED FROM THE INFIGHTING? AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR AMERICA?

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<i> David Lauter is The Times' national political editor, based in Washington. His last piece for the magazine was on George Bush's first two years as President. </i>

Nine o'clock on a Sunday night, and in the corner of a smoke-filled bar of a Holiday Inn in downtown Manchester, N.H., a pale, middle-aged man in a dark blue suit thumps out jazz standbys on the piano. A small, pretty girl with dark, braided hair sits next to him on the bench as a crowd of people pays various degrees of inattention.

“It had to be you, just had to be you . The tune from the piano swells. An elderly woman in the crowd smiles happily at a silent memory.

Were it not for the five photographers snapping away, the three professional handlers watching from seats by the bar and half a dozen reporters taking notes, the scene might even seem real.

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Look a little closer, however, and the telltale signs of phoniness pop out. Notice the complete lack of emotion in the piano player’s face. His hands move expertly over the keys, and his toes, encased in well-polished black wingtips, tap rhythmically, but he stares blankly forward. Then there is the little girl. If this were real, she might be the man’s daughter. In fact, he barely knows her. She is a prop.

The man at the keyboard is Lamar Alexander--once the governor of Tennessee, then secretary of education in the Cabinet of George Bush, now a candidate for the Republican nomination for President. Over by the bar stands his strategist and media adviser, Mike Murphy--the would-be James Carville of the GOP, a puckish bad boy whose beer gut and unstylishly long, dirty-blond hair make him look vaguely like a refugee from a biker gang who has accidentally stumbled into the world of big-time conservative politics. That, too, would be contrivance. Murphy, who guided Oliver North’s almost-successful campaign for the Senate last year, is one of the most sought-after, and best paid, consultants in the Republican field. The piano op was his idea.

“There are several layers of onionskin we still have to peel off him,” Murphy says of his candidate, describing the challenge he and his associates face as they try to persuade Alexander to reveal more of himself to a press corps and a public that believes personality is at least as important as policy positions in a President. Alexander really is an accomplished musician--after law school, he briefly helped support himself by playing trombone in a New Orleans jazz band. Hence, in the somewhat twisted logic of political campaigns, Murphy has persuaded him to sit at the keyboard in hopes that this completely staged mini-event will convince reporters that they have seen some part of “the real Lamar.”

The reporters, for their part, watch to see how well Alexander can carry out his assigned task--how well he can play the role of the real him. After 20 minutes or so, both sides tire of the exercise. It has been a long day of politics. Three hundred sixty-six more such days will pass before the first ballots in the nation’s first primary are cast. Both press and candidate could use some sleep.

Welcome to Campaign ’96. Before it is over, 19 months from now, there will be many more events like this--scores of fake revelations, thousands of photo ops, millions of dollars, perhaps even a few accidental moments of candor. As Alexander, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, perhaps Gov. Pete Wilson plus a scattering of also-rans, from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove, compete to take on Bill Clinton for the presidency, Campaign ’96 promises to be boisterous, nasty, expensive, confusing--in short, much like its predecessors, only more so.

But this campaign also bids fair to offer something different--something that goes beyond rhetoric and cheap shots. This one matters.

Normally, despite the exhortations of editorialists and the earnest pleadings of civics instructors, American elections do not decide all that much. Yes, some policies change, even some that have great import. But by and large, our two-party system exists to contain conflict, not heighten it. More or less evenly matched, both needing to reach voters in the middle to obtain a stable majority, the two parties usually cull through ideas and people, tossing aside the extremes, searching for those themes and proposals that can gain broad acceptance. Politics, as the cliche goes, becomes a game played between the 40-yard lines.

Every so often, however, the system breaks down. A problem arises that the two parties cannot fudge--slavery in the 1850s, the collapse of the rural economy in the 1890s, the Great Depression in the 1930s. Suddenly, under the strain, one party cracks. The other, now freed of the need to compromise, finds itself able to impose its own solutions. For a brief time, political discussion turns to root principles. Political scientists call those moments realignments. Voters might call them campaigns that count.

1996 could be such a year.

The current political party system, which dates from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, may not yet have broken down, but it has grown rickety in the extreme. The end of the Cold War removed one of the system’s major props. The huge gap between the promises we as a society have made to ourselves and our willingness to pay for them has steadily undermined a second prop. And a nagging sense of social decay has eroded a third, causing many Americans to question long-cherished assumptions.

As the old system has tottered, Republicans, once accustomed to working within a set of parameters laid down by Democrats, have found their own voice, notes University of Texas professor Walter Dean Burnham, one of the deans of American political science. On issues ranging from affirmative action to the scope of government’s role in the economy, he says, the Republicans have launched “a very, very ambitious effort at a basic transformation of American politics and policy of a sort that hasn’t been seen since the New Deal.”

So forget all that stuff about how campaigns start too early. This one, which actually began well over a year ago, could determine the basic shape of American government for a generation--everything from the size of your mother’s Social Security check to the sort of schools your kids will attend in the 21st Century. First, however, the Republicans face a basic choice: whether or not to roll the dice on the bet that America is really ready for a basic, top-to-bottom conservative overhaul of government.

Within the Republican camp, everyone is a conservative, or at least so they claim. One of the fastest ways to get into an argument along the campaign trail these days is carelessly to call a Republican a “moderate.”

“What about my record suggests that word?” demanded Alexander, after a reporter off-handedly referred to him as a moderate during an interview.

“I’m not a moderate. I’m a conservative,” insisted Dole, after a voter at a campaign stop used the M-word in questioning him.

Even Specter, who has made his support for abortion rights the centerpiece of his campaign, says of himself, “I’m a fiscal conservative and a social libertarian.”

The only creature rarer than an admitted moderate among Republicans these days is someone who will mention the name of the last GOP President. When a host of GOP hopefuls got together to strut before a New Hampshire Republican dinner in February, not one mentioned George Bush’s name. An even more extraordinary display came a few days later, when Gramm held a $4.1-million fund-raiser in Dallas--the largest such event ever. One of those introducing him was the governor of Texas, George W. Bush, who did not once mention his father’s name.

There is a relationship here. Many conservatives blame Bush for having allowed Clinton to win, arguing that he lost because he abandoned conservative principles. And conservatives won the 1994 election for Republicans. As usual, Democrats won the majority of liberal voters, with the two parties splitting almost evenly among moderates. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Democrats did fine last November at mobilizing minority voters--black turnout was actually higher in 1994 than in 1990 in most key states. But what swamped the Democrats was an overwhelming Republican vote among those who describe themselves as conservatives: a largely white group that outnumbers self-described liberals by about 2-1 in most polls.

Can a similar conservative outpouring also win the presidency for Republicans? The candidate most actively arguing that case is Gramm.

Republicans are “one victory away from reversing the course of American history,” Gramm says. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who talked a lot about the evils of “guv'mint” but actually did fairly little to change it, Gramm promises to uproot the whole works and start over. In announcing his candidacy in late February, he promised to balance the budget in four years and said he would not run for reelection if he failed to do so. In that effort, no program--not Social Security, not Medicare, not education--could go untouched.

Gramm appeals to many conservatives because he does not apologize. “I know who I am and what I believe in,” Gramm says. What he believes in is a vastly scaled-back version of government--one that would abandon the quest, begun under the New Deal, to guarantee security to the broad mass of American families.

In Gramm’s view, that guarantee has deprived too many Americans of their initiative and productivity. He expresses his view most sharply when speaking of the poor. In a phrase that inspires some Democrats to blind fury, he insists that the course of true compassion is to tell “those riding in the wagon to get out and help the rest of us pull it.” What he has in mind could be seen in a televised interview earlier this year, when Gramm suggested replacing welfare with a requirement that poor women accept jobs at $2.50 an hour with some unspecified government supplement to help them get by. Such efforts might be a hardship to the poor today, but their children and grandchildren will be thankful, Gramm says.

But Gramm’s changes would go far beyond programs for the poor. He has, for example, advocated changes in the Medicare program for the elderly that would, in essence, end the government’s current guarantee to pay the medical bills for those over 65. Instead, under Gramm’s plan, retirees would receive a fixed sum of money they could use to buy insurance of their own. People would have to pay more of their own bills out of pocket--a step that Gramm argues would hold down costs by making Americans better consumers. Critics say many elderly Americans, particularly those who are poor, would simply find insurance outside their reach.

After last November’s election, Gramm triumphantly declared that the Republican victory meant that “the American people endorsed what I believe in.” But did they?

A majority of Americans, among those who voted last November and those who did not, express considerable irritation with government--a sense that the government wastes too much money, tries to do too many things and messes up too often. In addition, Republicans successfully have tapped into resentment that many white Americans feel toward programs they believe have tilted too far toward the interests of minorities.

That is one side of the argument. On the other side, in repeated polls, majorities of Americans reject Republican policies when asked about them, whether the issue be abortion, ending welfare benefits for mothers under age 18 or repealing gun-control laws. On the central issue of the government’s role in society, voters are still far from embracing Republican proposals to drastically scale back popular programs such as Medicare.

Many Clinton aides are ready to bet the presidency on Gramm’s being wrong. What Gramm believes, they argue, goes far beyond what a majority of Americans will accept. Gramm would be the most aggressively conservative presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide in 1964, they argue, and they hope the result would be much the same.

Moreover, Gramm’s critics argue, his background makes him highly vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. While the Texas senator rails against the corrupting influence of government checks, he has spent almost his entire life on the taxpayer dole--from the Army hospital in which he was born and the War Orphans Act that paid for his education to the state university that hired him once he got his Ph.D. in economics and the seats in the House and Senate he has held for the past 16 years.

Democrats are not the only ones who think nominating Gramm might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Could Gramm, unlike Goldwater, win a general election? “I doubt it. I don’t think so, no,” New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said in an interview several months ago when asked if she thought Gramm could carry her state. Winning New Jersey is not, of course, the same thing as winning the general election, but for a Republican it is close--the state, with its endless stretches of suburbia, is the prototype of the kind of territory Republicans must carry to succeed nationwide.

But some Democratic strategists warn against assuming Gramm would be easily beatable. In 1980, “I sat in the office at Carter-Mondale headquarters when they broke out the champagne bottle during the Republican convention because the Republicans had been stupid enough to nominate Ronald Reagan, and we were definitely going to win,” recalls Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “I stopped that sort of speculation after that election.”

For Gramm to win, he would have to get past Dolee--the race’s current front-runner. Gramm is aggressive, determined and well financed--although Dole almost certainly will raise as much. But he has committed a few costly early blunders so far, particularly in New Hampshire, where he bent noses out of joint by seeming to support an effort to end the state’s “first in the nation” primary status--something that New Hampshirites regard as a near-God-given right.

Dole, meanwhile, holds a large lead in the early polls and leads as well in the estimation of Washington pundits and oddsmakers. But that could change. As a senior adviser to one of his Republican rivals puts it, “There’s a 20-year trend of Bob Dole losing primaries.”

This is Dole’s fourth attempt at national office. He was Gerald R. Ford’s running mate in 1976 and sought the nomination unsuccessfully in 1980 and 1988. In a party with a sense of hierarchy so strong it comes close to primogeniture, Dole might be able to win the nomination simply by arguing that his turn has come. His problem, however, is that he often seems to have little else to say.

Gramm makes a virtue of bluntness. Dole temporizes. Consider, for example, Dole’s response when talk-show host Larry King asked him if he favored a move by House Republicans to repeal the current federal school lunch program.

“I think we have to explain it better to the American people than we have,” Dole said. “We’re not talking about taking away school lunches. We wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t stand for that, particularly for low-income students, children. I think the thing we--the problem we have is whether the states should do it or whether the federal government should do it. And if the states do it, would there be 50 different standards? . . . I think if you have a national standard--dietary standard--and so I met this afternoon with Pat Roberts, a fellow Kansan, chairman of the Ag Committee on the House side. He’s looking at another option; just cap the amount you can spend. So it sort of gets away from this all-out entitlement program. But hopefully we can address it. We’re not going to--we’re not insensitive. The Republican party is not insensitive.”

Dole is similarly evasive on many other questions. That habit of mind has served him well in the Senate, where hiding one’s bottom line until the last minute is often a key element of legislative maneuvering. But the same habit can be deadly on the campaign trail. Dole lost the New Hampshire primary in 1988, and with it the nomination, largely because George Bush was willing to make an unequivocal pledge against raising taxes, and Dole insisted on equivocations. Bush, of course, lived to regret his pledge, but Dole never got that opportunity.

Gramm has tried to make Dole’s reluctance to commit himself a central issue of the campaign. In every speech, he reminds his audiences that when other Republicans, including Dole, were talking of compromising with Clinton over health care, “I stood up and said the Clinton health care bill is going to pass over my cold, dead political body.”

In the best of all possible worlds for Gramm, his uncompromising conservatism might draw the endorsement of the Republicans’ two speakers--House Speaker Newt Gingrich and radio speaker Rush Limbaugh. But even if those two remain neutral, which is more likely, Gramm’s strategists hope that Dole’s role in the Senate, presiding over compromises, will provide the Texan ample opportunities to contrast their records.

Dole, for his part, wants voters to focus on electability. “It doesn’t do much good to win the nomination unless you can win the election,” he told a friendly crowd of about 300 people jammed into a hotel meeting room in Dover, N.H., on an unseasonably warm day in mid-February.

The morning Dole made those remarks, the Boston Globe had released a poll showing Dole way out in front in the Republican race, the choice of 42% of people eligible to vote in next year’s New Hampshire primary. Gramm had only 7% support. As he stood in front of the crowd, Dole was clearly relishing the chance to play front-runner. His performance quickly demonstrated the strength of his developing campaign. Just as vividly, however, it illustrated why he could yet lose.

As he spoke, Dole appeared relaxed, funny and confident--a long way from the dark, brooding and tense figure whom many New Hampshire residents remember from 1988, the one who snarled on national television that George Bush should “stop lying about my record.” Indeed, at nearly every opportunity, Dole now tries to hammer home the notion that he has found some sort of inner peace, that voters no longer have to worry, as some have in the past, that he lives on the edge of a bitter explosion.

“I’m now the warm and fuzzy Bob Dole. I’ve become the voice of reason on Capitol Hill,” he quips.

On that score, Dole seems to have had some success. “He’s really got a sense of humor,” one middle-aged man remarks to his wife after standing in line at the Dover hotel to shake Dole’s hand. “I like that.”

Pat and Frank Cobrick, a pair of transplanted Californians now living in New Hampshire, share the same view. “I like him more than I did last time,” Frank said.

“I’d like a younger man,” Pat said.

Standing nearby, Gil Allen voices the same set of emotions. He sort of likes Dole, he says, “but the presidency is a hard job, toughest one there is. I remember Eisenhower saying, when he left, that ‘no man over 70 should sit in this chair.’

“You look at Reagan,” Allen continues, “that Alzheimer’s was apparent long before he announced it. And people lose their vigor, their stamina.”

For years, Dole, now 71, has maintained a vigorous pace of travel around the country, and he insists his current health is excellent, despite treatment for prostate cancer three years ago. But were Dole to win, he would be 73 when he takes office, only a few months younger than Reagan was when he started his second term. The same Globe poll that showed Dole with a large early lead also showed 36% of those surveyed saying that 73 was too old for a new President. Another 14% conceded it might be too old--a significant bloc, given that attention has only just begun to focus on the question.

Dole has tried to turn the issue to his advantage with a generational ploy, suggesting that his candidacy represents “one last call to serve, one more mission” for the generation that fought in World War II. Dole’s strategists hope that theme will do double-duty. On the one hand, it reminds voters that he fought in his generation’s war while Gramm, like Clinton, avoided Vietnam. At the same time, the generational theme may strike a chord with voters who mistrust the whole baby-boom generation. But generational politics is a difficult game to play--in the last election, pollsters found that baby boomers were most inclined to mistrust the Clinton-Gore ticket while older voters were more receptive to the idea of a younger President. At a time when many in Dole’s generation are feeling the debilitating effects of age themselves, it is unclear how successful his plea for generational solidarity may be.

Even if he can overcome that problem, however, Dole faces another that is potentially more serious--lack of a message.

Successful modern presidential campaigns generally take on something of the air of crusades. For better or worse, voters like to convince themselves that the candidate they favor embodies something larger than one man’s ambition. When that works, the voters’ faith in his message allows the newly elected President to claim that Americans not only chose him but also gave him a mandate--a source of tremendous power to a President who can use it.

Dole makes a half-hearted stab at such a message, carrying around a copy of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which he reads to crowds at virtually every stop: “The Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.” But Dole offers no real sense of what his devotion to constitutional federalism might mean in reality. When asked to flesh out his stand, he often replies with mind-numbing legislative jargon.

There is, indeed, only one subject on which Dole is clear, simple and direct, and it is the real center of his campaign--experience. “Here I am, I’m Bob Dole,” he told the crowd in Dover. “I’ve been in the Congress for some time, know how things work, someone who’s been tested and tested and tested and is still standing.”

In short, elect me--I won’t screw up.

After four years of Clinton, and endless stories about White House snafus on matters large and small, such an appeal to experience and competence might be enough for Dole to win--even though, in fact, the experience of a legislature is far different from that of a chief executive. But in this age of term-limit fever, running as the consummate insider may not be the best idea.

Some Republicans are betting that anger against “insiders” will rebound against both Dole and Gramm. Indeed, the “outsider” pose is at the center of Alexander’s campaign and presumably will play a major role for Wilson if he chooses to run.

Alexander has attracted a boatload of skilled political handlers and enough prominent fund-raisers to float them. But so far, much of his candidacy seems driven by artifice. He clearly has mastered many of the techniques of modern campaigning and offers a mild personality that over time may wear on voters far better than the sometimes caustic Dole wit and the in-your-face Gramm intensity. But his career, much of it spent inside Washington, coexists uneasily with his anti-Washington stance, and his profile as a successful but not particularly ideological Southern governor may seem just a bit too close to Clinton’s for many people’s comfort. His personal finances, which include several cases in which he made large sums of money from arrangements that, while legal, could easily be characterized as “insider deals,” may also hurt him.

Moreover, Alexander faces the cruel fact that he is not really master of his own fate. If Dole or Gramm stumble, he is well poised to move up. If not, Republican primary voters may quickly come to see him as someone running mostly for vice president.

As for Wilson, he spent January and February making preparations to run and tantalizing the political world with speculation about his intentions. Political figures close to him expect Wilson to make a final decision sometime this month, with most betting that he will, indeed, run. If he does, his record as a skilled and tenacious campaigner with a base in the nation’s largest state will give him a strong start, but he could be plagued by troubles at home as he tries to build his name recognition in the East.

Wilson might well be the party’s strongest candidate in a general election--at the very least he would force Clinton to spend many days and millions of dollars campaigning in California. But he has long had troubled relations with the conservative wing of the party in California. Already some conservatives in the state have been flocking to Gramm, in part to put pressure on Wilson not to run.

Wilson is opposed by three of the strongest ideological groups in the party because of his pro-choice stand on abortion, his approval of some limits on gun sales and his passage of a major tax increase in his first term. Given the importance of conservatives in the GOP primaries, particularly in the South, those ideological strains posed a major hurdle to his ambitions.

As the major candidates prepare their strategies, a second tier of candidates stands on the edges of the race. They have little chance of capturing the nomination, but their strong advocacy of their positions--isolationism in the case of Patrick J. Buchanan, abortion rights in the case of Specter--could force the others to take stands on controversial issues they would rather avoid.

Specter’s proposal to remove the anti-abortion plank from the GOP platform, for example, already has forced the other Republican candidates to address the issue--nearly all have tried to downplay their opposition to abortion--something they almost certainly would have preferred to avoid. Similarly, while almost no one thinks Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar has a serious shot at the nomination, his advocacy of traditional Republican internationalism will probably complicate whatever attempts Dole might make to co-opt some of Buchanan’s supporters.

And then there is Clinton.

Already, the President has begun putting in place the themes for a reelection effort. The new Clinton theme is heavy with unintended irony. In 1992, and for most of his first two years in office, Clinton campaigned as the candidate of change. Americans must “make change our friend,” he repeatedly exhorted. Now, he has begun launching precisely the opposite strategy for his reelection campaign--accusing the Republicans of extremism, stressing the risks in what they propose to do, offering himself as the bulwark against tinkering with programs like Medicare. For his reelection, it seems, Clinton might as well borrow the slogan used by Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl: “No experiments.”

Clinton may have the advantage of being the first Democratic President since Roosevelt to win renomination without a battle. While there is much political talk about someone challenging Clinton in the Democratic primaries, not even a potential opponent has surfaced beyond former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, who has sometimes threatened to oppose Clinton with an anti-abortion candidacy.

The lack of primary opposition, of course, is testimony not to Clinton’s strength but to his party’s weakness. By contrast with 1979, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) could use the backing of labor and powerful liberal groups as the launch pad for his strike against President Jimmy Carter, the institutional ground under the Democratic party has weakened so much that any potential opponent would have to finance and build a campaign on his own, a nearly impossible task. For that reason, senior Democrats like House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey have adopted the behavior pattern of vultures, not hawks--keeping a watchful eye on Clinton so as to be ready to swoop if he drops but unwilling to stage an attack.

Some Republicans, mesmerized by their victories in November, believe it hardly matters what Clinton does. Even Democratic strategists concede Clinton faces formidable problems, particularly in the middle of the country. From Memphis up the Mississippi River past St. Louis and then on up the Ohio valley as far as Pittsburgh lies a belt of territory covering parts of five states that Clinton won in 1992 but in which he could not prevail if the election were held now--Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even if he can hold California--by no means a sure thing--Clinton will lose if he cannot hold the center, his strategists concede.

But leading Republican strategists warn of complacency. “I’ve worked with two Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who at this point in their presidencies were having a lot of problems,” notes longtime Republican strategist Ken Khachigian. Clinton has many vulnerabilities, he adds, but “people are reluctant to throw out their Presidents.” They may be even reluctant in a year in which the opposition party is asking the country to throw out not just a President but also a substantial part of 60 years of accumulated policy.

Indeed, the national polls right now are not so bad for Clinton. Despite a year of pummeling, his favorability rating continues to hover around 50%. The continued intense spotlight on House Speaker Newt Gingrich has taken some attention from Clinton, a blessing for him, at least for now. Many economic analysts believe the economy is moving Clinton’s way, too, with slower growth this year that would allow the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates just in time for the election.

“I believe in the broad sweep of American history,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, whose firm has advised Dole. Since World War II--referring to the elections of 1946 and ’48, 1958 and ’60, 1966 and ’68 and 1974 and ’76--"We’ve had four midterm blowouts; all of them have been followed by too-close-to-call presidential campaigns,” he notes. “This will be another one.”


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