Back-Room Crowd Having Its Way

Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984. He was assisted in this article by Democratic political consultant Ben Chao

The back room is back! The political good ole days. A time when party nominees were picked rather than elected, conventions were brokered rather than media events and a party's nominee was chosen in the proverbial "smoke-filled room."

Contrary to revisionist history, however, party bosses and fat cats didn't always call the shots. More often than not, it was governors and big-city mayors dictating the party's nominee. To be sure, many of these boys were products of machines: New York's Tammany, Missouri's Pendergast, Connecticut's Bailey. But governors and mayors brokered the final deal in return for federal money, political appointments and sometimes revenge on political enemies.

Whether you believe those really were the "good ole days" of politics or not, they're making a comeback this year.

Gov. John Engler of Michigan kicked off this political renaissance by convincing his fellow GOP governors that the future of their party hinged on winning back the White House with an electable non-Washington candidate. The governors' pick? George W. Bush, one of their own.

So, 20 Republican governors, and a host of Republican mayors and state legislators, have lined up behind the Texas governor for an old-fashioned insider coronation. Republicans in Congress, who for many years have been lead players in the presidential-selection process, quickly jumped on board, showing, once again, courage in the face of the train leaving the station.

There's an old political saying: "Be careful what you wish for." Republicans may wish for Bush but, in doing so, they've thrown caution to the wind. Bush is a likable yet unproven candidate with an unknown record. Already, he has made several mistakes, from gun control to abortion. The front-runner "glow" has saved him from the gaffes, but that won't last.

Like the Democrats in 1992, Republicans are desperate to reclaim the White House. To do so, they seem prepared to sacrifice much of the conservative message that brought Ronald Reagan to power in 1980 and Newt Gingrich in 1994. All for a poll-created candidate whose only apparent asset, besides setting fund-raising records, is that he leads Al Gore in the polls. What is not apparent is his commitment to the base conservative principles sacrosanct to the party faithful.

The GOP elite have convinced themselves that they need a Republican version of Bill Clinton. Republicans believe a "compassionate conservative" can energize the moderate middle, while pandering to the party's conservative base as little as possible.

But the real debate these days is not whether the GOP has found its savior, but whether Republican insiders are prepared for the consequences of compromising their conservative principles. At least those principles, as misguided as they are, have a constituency. Bush has yet to prove he has any base outside Texas.

What price, if any, the GOP will pay for this "compassionate compromise" is unknown. What's known is that the conservative wing of the party is not at all happy with the front-runner. Religious conservatives believe the Texas governor can win the general election, but he may have to get there without their help. A bluff? Don't count on it.

Discontent among religious conservatives is growing. Presidential hopeful Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire is considering a third-party challenge because he despises the compassionate compromise. Fellow right-winger Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has entered the fray as the "real conservative alternative" if Bush stumbles.

But Bush could still win a general election without the religious right by appealing to moderate voters, much as Clinton did in 1992 and 1996. But that is a tough balancing act. You've got to be slick, evasive and conveniently forget chunks of your past. Bush has shown he can be slick and evasive, dodging on abortion, ducking on gun control and never mentioning his questionable land deals or sweetheart financial bailouts by his father's friends. You think Whitewater was fishy? Wait until you hear about George W. Bush's Midland oil-patch deals. Can't wait myself.

Each day, I get the sense that Bush is becoming the Republican version of Clinton. But is the country ready for another slick president?

The race on the Democratic side is a bit different. Most Democratic officials and operatives have lined up behind Gore. Their goal is to avoid a nasty primary season and have "their man" gallop into the convention on a white horse with his armor still intact.

The Gore Democrats clearly think they have pulled their own back-room deal. Unlike Vice President George Bush in 1988, Gore and the party insiders have elbowed out all but one primary opponent. An overlooked component in all this is the president.

Even as Gore tries to distance himself from Clinton, big brother Bill had helped clear most of the bullies off the playground before Al went out to play. Not only was Clinton the only president in modern times to endorse his vice president at the start, but he also turned his formidable money machine over to Al and let the veep announce billions in government largess.

As a result, little Al still doesn't have the playground to himself, but he's clearly playing with the best toys in the yard. This strategy has enhanced Gore's front-runner status and yielded much early cash and endless endorsements. Only one Gore challenger means more money. More money means more votes. More votes equal a convincing Gore nomination. At least that's the insiders' view.

But Gore must still win the nomination by himself, with his own agenda and vision while undoing a less than flattering opinion of him among voters. He should win the nomination, but there's a downside to having only one opponent.

Voters who don't like Gore will vote for former Sen. Bill Bradley. They have no other choice, and don't underestimate the old basketball player. He may not light fires under voters, but he is smart, well-funded and has an outsider appeal. His greatest asset is that he isn't slick.

Gore seems to be running from his boring image. Not only won't that work, but his handlers should realize, after Clinton, that boring may well be an asset.

So what does this all mean? The GOP has turned the electoral process over to political insiders who are rolling the dice on an appealing candidate with no agenda, a shaky business history and a dangerous inclination to be slick. The Democrats have relied on the White House to clear the field for Gore and, barring a Bradley upset, have rigged the nomination for the vice president. But at what price?

Contested primaries help define the winning candidate. Better to be tested in battle and win than to be handed the crown.

This year's return to the back room has already yielded one clear result. The presidential primaries have been cheapened for those who should decide the nominees: the voters.*

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