George W.'s Straw Party
Family, Farmers and Fetuses
It's not too tough to figure out why Bush has won the near-unanimous endorsement of the party elite. Beyond his invaluable name recognition, Bush seems almost alone among the candidates to "get it"--to have internalized the simple lesson that the Gingrich strategy long ago ran its course. The rest of the Republican field appears as so many self-caricatures.
Elizabeth Dole rejoiced at finishing third in the Ames poll with 14 percent after so many pundits had predicted she'd be a goner. But her chances--other than as a possible pick for VP--are nil. As she replayed the same canned stump speech at event after event, Dole couldn't refrain from tossing out occasional Gingrichian leftovers. She promised to "rein in the IRS...and get the IRS out of your pockets." On the same day the news reported that six US diplomats in Colombia were under suspicion of drug smuggling, Dole tried to "Noriega-ize" Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo as being personally responsible for the "drug pipeline" into the United States and suggested dispatching US troops to take him out.
Dan Quayle, after coming in eighth in the Ames poll with a laughable 4 percent, still claims that he is the "only candidate who can reassemble the Reagan coalition." But last week he could draw only sixteen people to a "community reception for activists and supporters" staged, appropriately enough, in the gritty Iowa town of Waterloo. Low on cash, the campaign couldn't offer the scraggly bunch as much as cookies or Kool-Aid (though one can imagine nervous Quayle staff members keeping the dispirited candidate away from Kool-Aid and any other dangerous substances). "I know you sometimes feel very lonely," he told his bewildered audience as he openly seethed with resentment at being outshone by the son of the man to whom he was Vice President. Later, Quayle complained to me that the GOP was risking defeat in 2000 because "some in our party, by their ambiguity and by their having government do more and more, are taking our party too far to the left."
Steve Forbes went all out to beat Bush in the Ames poll. First he raided opposition campaign staffs and hired away the best organizers in the state. Then he blitzed sixty-six Iowa counties and logged 6,000 miles in just six weeks. He spent a million-plus dollars saturating the airwaves with commercials--some attacking Ayn Rand devotee and Fed chief Alan Greenspan and others vowing to nominate only antiabortion judges. At his campaign events he posed with any and all comers for on-the-spot free digital photos. On the day of the Ames poll the Forbes campaign chartered a hundred buses and Forbes greeted his clients with a grab bag of goodies, a hangar-sized air-conditioned entertainment tent with French doors, a 1,000-seat free feeding area and a McDonald's-like playland for the kiddies.
Forbes claims his second-place finish of 20 percent casts him as the "only conservative alternative to Bush," but in reality, it exposes just how low his natural ceiling is. With his campaign 2000 so far confined mostly to Iowa, Forbes has not yet had a chance to show the rest of America what a fringe character he has become. In '96 he positioned himself as a free-market fundamentalist and a sort of easygoing social libertarian. Now he has resurrected himself as a flat-out fundamentalist. His wooden, robotlike delivery and eerie, remote smile today seem more frightening than funky, as he adopts social conservative positions that might make Reverend Falwell blush. The day after the Ames poll, on a network political talk show, Forbes refused to criticize a recent decision by the Kansas Board of Education to remove the theory of evolution from the school curriculum. "I went with Forbes in '96 for the flat tax," said a Des Moines pharmacist who has now switched to Bush. "But this time around he sounds like one of those Moonies." His showing in the Iowa straw poll may wind up being remembered as the Forbes 2000 high-water mark.
That leaves the Christian right, which marked its own high tide here in 1988 when Christian Coalition pooh-bah Pat Robertson actually won that year's straw poll. But that was then. The political discipline imposed by the coalition has waned as Robertson's group has slowly come apart. In Iowa the remaining shell of the coalition exploded two weeks before the straw poll. After its state chairwoman, entrepreneur Bobbi Gobel, publicly charged that Forbes had tried to hire workers from her temp agency to vote in the Ames poll, the national Christian Coalition got rid of her and her board and closed down the state office. No regrets on Gobel's part. "God has set us free from the Christian Coalition," she said. "We were being strong-armed by half the people in the national office to go with Forbes. The other half are for Bush. Fact is, the people of Iowa are tired of the Christian Coalition."
Gary Bauer, who is running here on what you might call a program of Family, Farmers and Fetuses, scored a minor victory in Ames by outpolling Pat Buchanan by a 9 percent to 7 percent margin. But throw Alan Keyes into the mix, not to mention Forbes, and you have a four-way factional fight over the Christian-right vote. And even in this straw poll, an event truly tailor-cut for the network-type organizing of the Christian constituency, their sum vote was considerably less than a third of the total.
This declining religious-conservative base is one factor that has led to speculation that Buchanan might bolt for the Reform Party--a move that would require muting his culture-wars pitch. As it is, he still thumps for life and moral rearmament, but nowadays Buchanan strongly emphasizes economic populism and attacks his own Republican Party. Perhaps the most surreal moment of the Ames poll was when a caravan of six brightly painted semitrailers bearing the Teamsters logo roared up next to Buchanan's tent and parked in a circle. Scores of blue-capped anti-NAFTA Teamsters poured out from buses accompanying the trucks and the workers noisily rallied, vowing that "our issues will be heard." And they wildly applauded when Buchanan fired off a barrage of anticorporate rhetoric. What an anomaly it is of US politics--and what a frustration it is for progressives--that the only presidential candidate today standing before unionized workers and calling for tougher application of antitrust laws, for a possible lifting of the economic blockades of Cuba and Iraq, who calls NAFTA "a sellout of Americans for the benefit of a lot of bankers," who laments that "we need a leader from any party who will stand up for working Americans against giant transnational corporations," is Pat Buchanan.