Alexander Sees GOP Risking It All by Banking on Dole


The Republican Party risks losing not only the White House but also control of Congress if it nominates front-runner Bob Dole and remains preoccupied with an agenda “that is only about cutting government in Washington,” former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander plans to argue today in a major speech.

“It is time Republicans said loud and clear that it may be Sen. Dole’s turn, but it is not his revolution. . . . It is time to move on,” Alexander says, according to the advance text of the speech, which is intended to energize his flagging presidential campaign.

In the speech, which is scheduled to be delivered to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, Alexander maintains that Republicans should enlarge their focus, moving beyond reducing the size of the federal government and toward shifting responsibility for social problems from the public sector to private charities and other civic institutions.

“Big government, by itself, did not create all the problems we have today, and less government, by itself, will not solve those problems,” Alexander says. “The goal of the Republican revolution is not just to balance the budget but to renew our institutions and rebuild America.”

With his call for conservatives to embrace a wide-ranging “citizenship agenda,” Alexander is attempting to tap into one of the most vibrant intellectual movements on the right. Over the last several months, a growing number of conservative thinkers--largely inspired by the work of historian Marvin Olasky--has begun to sketch out ways in which charities and other private institutions could assume responsibility for many of the services now provided by the welfare state.


“This could be the central theme of conservatism for the next 20 years,” says Adam Meyerson, the editor of a new Heritage Foundation magazine devoted to the movement.

More immediately, Alexander’s speech signifies the growing concern among the Republican contenders about the increasing aura of inevitability surrounding Dole.

Alexander, a former education secretary, argues that Dole lacks the ability to present a positive vision that could defeat President Clinton next fall--and could run so poorly that “he could drag others down to defeat with him--putting the House and the revolution itself at risk.”

Nelson Warfield, Dole’s campaign spokesman, dismissed Alexander’s remarks. “Time is running out for the second-tier candidates, and what you see is an escalating level of vitriolic attack,” Warfield said. “I don’t know what candidate Secretary Alexander is talking about. Sen. Dole has set the terms of debate on a variety of issues.”

For Alexander, the speech represents a critical effort to jump-start a campaign that itself seems at risk--trailing in fund-raising, still mired around 5% in polls of the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and lacking, in the minds of many primary voters, a clearly defined message and identity.

Through most of the campaign so far, Alexander has tried to portray himself as a “Washington outsider” committed to massively devolving power from the capital to the states, and encouraging greater “personal responsibility” among Americans. Alexander’s call for rebuilding civic society extends logically from those themes; in the speech today, he argues that reducing government is a necessary but insufficient condition to inspire social renewal. “Less from Washington has to go hand-in-hand with more from ourselves,” Alexander says.

In the speech, Alexander offers a roster of policy proposals. Some of these are familiar GOP wishes, such as vouchers that would allow parents in low-income neighborhoods to send their children to private schools and the elimination of the capital-gains tax to spur the growth of jobs.

Others are closer to the cutting edge of conservative thought. Congressional Republicans and Clinton are locked in disputes over converting federal programs into block grants to the states, for example. Alexander calls for more radical devolution--proposing to eliminate all federal funds for an unspecified number of social programs, such as welfare and food stamps, reduce taxes and then allow states to fund and design the programs on their own.

Alexander suggests that states might choose to replace the federal programs by establishing their own nonprofit corporations to serve the needy in new ways. Alexander also endorses the idea of creating a new tax credit that would encourage greater donations to private charities that serve the poor.

The tax credit is at the core of the intellectual efforts on the right to construct a new model for aiding the needy. Like Alexander, a lengthening line of conservative thinkers argues that merely reducing government will neither ensure the GOP lasting political preeminence nor solve the country’s most pressing problems. Instead, they maintain that conservatives should focus on rebuilding and transferring authority to the institutions of “civil society"--churches, voluntary associations and charitable groups.

“The necessities of Alexander’s campaign [to find a distinctive message] dovetail nicely with conservatives’ need to articulate a broader theme and vision,” says GOP strategist Bill Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard magazine.

Much of this argument draws on the work of conservative analyst Olasky, whose book, “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” maintains that private charities in the 19th century--most of them religiously based--served the poor more effectively than the modern welfare state because such charities demanded personal responsibility from those they assisted.

These ideas are just beginning to move into legislative debate. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) won approval of language in the Republican welfare reform legislation that would make it easier for states to contract with charitable organizations to provide services for the poor.

While these ideas increasingly intrigue many Republicans, many liberals argue that it is unrealistic to expect private charities to assume substantially greater responsibility for the needs of the poor, especially in light of the GOP’s proposed reductions in existing government social programs.

“If you take all the cuts in the means-tested programs and divided it by the number of religious congregations . . . each one would have to raise $1.5 million to $2 million to make up for what is being cut,” says Sharon Daly, deputy for social policy at the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Despite such criticism--these ideas are virtually certain to rise in prominence among Republicans. Several Dole advisors, for instance, have been privately agitating for him to address these themes. “Whether or not Alexander succeeds in riding this to the nomination,” says Kristol, “I think the Republican nominee is going to pick up on this agenda.”