George H.W. Bush

Politics: '96 Peers


Why are we wasting so much ink on this year's presidential election? It's really not that important. If George Bush wins re-election, his second term will likely be one of drift and frustration. He'll still face a Democratic Congress intent on raising taxes, regulating business, and pandering to interest groups. Bush won't fight; he'll cave—and perhaps, as in the case of the regulatory initiatives enacted during his first term, he'll do even more than that.

If Bill Clinton wins, his budget-busting "investment" agenda and higher taxes will only weaken the country's economic health, while his Carteresque foreign- and social-policy miscues will likely lead to widespread public dismay and even…malaise. High inflation, interest rates, and unemployment will remind voters of another decade, when a lackluster Republican moderate lost his bid for re-election to a self-professed Democratic reformer and Southern governor—whose presidential term became a fiasco. In 1980, that sequence of events led to an exciting, albeit short-lived, political revolution. Could it happen again?

The 1996 campaign has already begun, and Republicans are searching for a new Ronald Reagan to rally around. At the August convention in Houston, a host of Gipper wannabes pushed and shoved their way into the Republican huddle, trying desperately to get the attention of the party's faithful fans.

Some, such as Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, were obvious about it: He sponsored receptions at the convention for delegations from early primary states. Others, such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, played a more traditional, demure role, shrugging off media questions about 1996 with a sly smile and wink at the television cameras.

Gramm's candor is refreshing (he told one reporter that "anybody who has ever been elected to city council who tells you they haven't thought about being president is not telling the truth"), but Kemp's act drew better reviews. In an Associated Press survey of delegates to the convention, one-third said they'd support Kemp in 1996. Gramm's 5 percent consisted largely of the Texas delegation, and Dan Quayle's 9 percent was Midwesterners and Bush loyalists.

The struggle for leadership of the post-Bush GOP will be fought out among rising stars who enjoy the support of like-minded, enthusiastic activists. These presidential aspirants are divided into several rival camps.

The Supply-Siders. Kemp heads this group, as he has since it formed in the late 1970s. Among its constituents are current and former Wall Street Journal editorialists, prominent neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, and "progressive conservatives" who are strongly pro-immigration, pro-free trade, committed to minority outreach and the "Conservative War on Poverty," and, above all, optimistic in their thinking and rhetoric. Many GOP activists joined this club in 1980 and are still waiting to try their pet ideas.

Unfortunately, Supply-Siders rarely exhibit as much antipathy for government spending as they do for taxation, which is why Kemp's HUD budget requests have been massive and why his supporters are more interested in reforming government programs than in eliminating them. During the 1988 Republican primaries, Kemp ridiculed fellow GOP contender Pete du Pont, a former Delaware governor, for advocating privatization and significant federal budget cuts and for flirting with "libertarianism."

Kemp and his supporters in the conservative movement's policy magazines and think tanks view a sizable federal role in America's economy as inevitable. They argue that instead of trying to cut the size of government conservatives should make sure that government services are delivered efficiently. "The Democrats' New Covenant is not new…it's not change," Kemp said in his convention address. "It doesn't put people first; it puts government first. It doesn't empower people; it empowers bureaucracy." Kemp's real target isn't government interference in markets but bureaucratic interference. Eliminating government's bureaucratic impulses is a wonderful goal, but even a "lean and mean" federal government can be a menace.

The Budget Cutters. Gramm leads a strikingly different faction of fiscal conservatives who view government's share of the economy, not just high tax rates, as America's major problem. Coauthor of numerous spending-restraint laws, Gramm is more likely to call for the end of farm supports, mass-transit funding, business subsidies, and other high-ticket items than are Republicans with executive-branch experience, who (like Kemp) often lose their distaste for government power once they get to exercise some of it.

The difference between these two groups is clearest on the issue of the federal budget deficit. Supply-Siders argue that the deficit isn't overly large, that it doesn't have disastrous effects on economic performance (at least in the short term), and that economic growth, stimulated by tax cuts, is the best way to reduce deficits and pay off government debt in the long run. Supply-Siders truly believe the old conservative adage that government can and should be run like a business; firms, after all, regularly go into debt to accomplish important objectives.

But Budget Cutters rebut the "government as business" analogy. A business cannot inflate the currency to reduce the value of its debts, nor is it vulnerable to the interest-group politics and public-choice dynamics that make government spending so difficult to control. It follows, then, that debt in the public sector is different from debt in the private sector and that we must employ extraordinary measures (such as a balanced-budget amendment or constitutional spending impediments) to avoid accumulating too much public debt.

One further difference between the Supply-Siders and the Budget Cutters is that while Kemp is solidly at the head of the former group, Gramm is but one leader of the latter. Another Budget Cutter with a shot at the presidential nomination is Dick Cheney, currently Bush's secretary of defense but formerly House minority whip and a careful, reliable critic of federal spending. Cheney is almost universally respected among GOP conservatives and scored some public-relations points during the Persian Gulf War.

The Culture Warriors. While Kemp and Gramm focus on their respective economic prescriptions, the Culture Warriors frequently view economic problems as only manifestations of deeper social trends. Values, not incentives, trap the poor in the welfare cycle, so jobs and opportunities (created either by Kemp's tax cuts or Gramm's regulatory and spending restraint) won't solve the problem. These Republicans, many of whom are recent party converts, care much more about social issues such as abortion, school prayer, and gay rights than they do about free-market economics—if they believe in the free market at all.

The best (that is, most thoughtful and diplomatic) spokesman for the Culture Warriors is neoconservative Bill Bennett, former education secretary under Reagan. Bennett argues for public morality while retaining respect for liberty. "This is a free country," Bennett said in his Houston speech. "Within very broad limits people may behave as they wish. And yet we believe some ways of living are better than others—better because they bring more meaning to our lives, to the lives of others, and to our fragile, fallible human condition." Bennett believes that government can encourage these "better ways of living" without prohibiting alternatives or driving political "wedges" between groups.

The real leader of the Culture Warriors is commentator and Bush primary challenger Pat Buchanan, and the differences between Bennett's and Buchanan's calls for cultural war couldn't be more striking. Buchanan's vitriolic speech at the Houston convention (in prime time right before Reagan's) was easily the most electrifying event of the week—not surprisingly, since evangelicals and religious fundamentalists made up about 40 percent of the delegates. Many of these activists, who control a dozen or so state parties already, trace their political careers to Pat Robertson's 1988 campaign, a nonstarter that nonetheless brought new people into the world of GOP activism.

Ralph Reed, head of Robertson's Christian Coalition, says the TV preacher's 1988 effort "will be for evangelicals what Barry Goldwater's run was for conservatives in 1964: a defeat that provided the seeds of ultimate triumph." If so, the Republican Party will look much different after that triumph: neo-isolationist, suspicious of free trade and immigrants, and more intent than ever on using government power to inhibit divorce, hound homosexuals, purge sex education from schools, and banish "secular humanism" from public life.

While Bennett's remarks earned praise from virtually every GOP leader (and even some liberal pundits), Buchanan's speech polarized Republicans into pro- and anti-Pat camps. Pat Robertson loved it, while Kemp said of the Buchanan manifesto that "if that were my party, I wouldn't want to be in it."

Activists more interested in economic policy than social issues have tended to ignore the Culture Warriors, but they do so in the future only at their own peril. This group is passionate and growing, and of all the groups in the loose Republican confederation, the most up for grabs in 1996. First, they have few historical ties with the GOP. Second, neither Buchanan nor Bennett is likely to be the presidential nominee; neither has held elective office. So watch for other candidates to try to outbid each other to attract Culture Warriors to their camp. The question is: Will these new suitors sound more like Bennett or Buchanan?

The GOP Governors. Their programs and ideas may be different, but these potential candidates share similar experience and prospects. Republican governors tend to emphasize a relatively new set of institutional reforms, such as privatization, term limits, and legal reform.

They also share three major advantages over Republican candidates from the administration or the Congress. First, they have the mystique of being chief executives—they have "run something" before. Second, they preside over some of America's "laboratories of democracy" and can point to pet projects in their states, such as welfare reform or trade policy, to dramatize their leadership potential. Lastly, they reside outside the Beltway. In other words, they have plausible deniability.

Aside from these similarities, however, the GOP Govs are a diverse lot of thinkers and tinkerers. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld could have been an ideal standard-bearer of a new Republican Party, rooted in both fiscal conservatism and social tolerance, if he had not wholeheartedly embraced environmentalist quackery.

South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell made quite a name for himself as a Bush surrogate and booster before and during the convention, though he raised the ire of GOP leaders by speaking so long the first night that he pushed most of Reagan's speech past 11 p.m. on the East Coast. (Ironically, this misstep may have helped Bush in vote-rich California, where Reagan is a hero and 8 p.m. is prime time.)

Campbell's forte is trade policy; he made headlines a month before the convention with the announcement of a new BMW plant in his state. "In South Carolina, 73,000 people go to work each day in businesses that are supported by foreign investment," he said in his speech. He added that threats to free trade, such as Clinton's tax proposals (or protectionism of a Republican variety, though he left that unstated), could destroy the livelihoods of millions of Americans.

Other governors, such as Jim Edgar of Illinois, John Engler of Michigan, and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, got their own moments at the convention and talked up their pet issues, such as budget restraint (Engler) and school choice (Thompson).

Each Republican governor enjoys a base of support in his home state and region, with other boosters sprinkled around the GOP political circuit. Four years is a long time. It's long enough for anyone to catapult into national prominence—especially if Clinton wins and the GOP Governors suddenly become leaders of the opposition. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, and, of course, Clinton himself demonstrate how helpful such a position can be in attracting national attention.

The Bush Brigade. A more apt, but less alliterative, name for this group would be the Bush Platoon, since it's likely to be rather small. And of its potential leaders, only former Secretary of State James Baker, longtime Bush handler and notorious pragmatist, would and might run as an heir to the Bush mantle. Believe it or not, he actually leads in very early polls of 1996 prospects in New Hampshire. (Another politician often thought of as presidential material by Easterners, California Gov. Pete Wilson, could easily run as a gubernatorial version of George Bush—which is why he won't be much of a candidate.)

What strengths might Baker bring to the 1996 contest? If Bush wins this year and accomplishes something, say in foreign policy, then Baker could essentially run on "competence, not ideology." If Bush wins this year and then struggles through the next four years, Baker wouldn't be left with much but name recognition. If Bush loses, Baker can forget it.

The Heir Unapparent. The person most obviously positioned to benefit from eight years of George Bush—Bush's vice president—has demonstrated some real ability as a consensus builder and leader. Dan Quayle's three areas of emphasis nicely straddle the party's ideological divide: business regulation (satisfying the Supply-Siders and the Budget Cutters), family values and TV criticism (thrilling the Culture Warriors), and reform of government and legal institutions (appealing to the same reformist base as the GOP Govs).

Unfortunately, Dan Quayle is a national joke. That's not going to change. And when Quayle answered speculation about the next presidential race with "Let us see George Bush reelected this November, and then we'll talk about 1994," he didn't help matters.

As with all such attempts, the above demarcation of 1996 GOP contenders exaggerates their differences a bit. Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm are anti-abortion and talk up family values, Pat Buchanan attacks business regulation, and James Baker occasionally talks about ideas. The point is that each person emphasizes a different segment of the old, and somewhat tattered, Reagan coalition. More important, some issues—such as foreign policy, immigration, trade, and tolerance—really do divide Republicans as well as former Reagan Democrats and independents.

The party will have to make a conscious choice between two possible visions of America: stasis, where government tries to protect its citizens from economic competition from abroad and societal change from within; and dynamism, where government's job is to set and enforce the rules of discourse and exchange through which economic and social change occurs—rather than trying to head change off at the pass.

The trick for all these Republican presidential aspirants will be to refashion a coalition of squabbling groups around a common theme, as Reagan did with anticommunism and antigovernment rhetoric. Perhaps the task is impossible. It will certainly require attention to uncommitted segments of the electorate, such as optimistic and forward-thinking young people, economically conservative but socially tolerant Baby Boomers, and new Americans from Latin America and Asia—all of whose sentiments currently lie somewhere between Pat Robertson's Republican Party and Jesse Jackson's Democratic Party.

A candidate stressing low taxes, low spending, economic dynamism, social tolerance, a coherent post-Cold War foreign policy, and, above all, optimism and progress could form a new ruling coalition. So far, though, the Republican best bets for 1996 still remain only lowly pretenders to Ronald Reagan's throne.

Contributing Editor John Hood is editor of Carolina Journal and a columnist for Spectator magazine in Raleigh.