George W.'s Straw Party
As the 2000 campaign unfolds, Bush's more conservative rivals can and will persevere. Keyes, Bauer and, to a lesser degree, Buchanan, no matter their poll standings, can soldier on, grazing on nuts and berries. For his part, Steve Forbes has got enough personal reserves to keep campaigning right into 2004.
The Republican right can no longer lead the party. But it can be a spoiler, as its message still resonates among many party activists. It has become almost instinctual for the party core to excoriate Clinton. During the speeches at Ames, the loudest outburst of applause was elicited by Buchanan. "My first act in office?" he said, pausing dramatically. "After I'm sworn in I will be the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement officer. So I will turn to Bill Clinton and I will say, 'Sir, you have the right to remain silent...'"
Another loud ovation was showered on zealot Alan Keyes when he shouted out his most extreme and top priority proposals: "repealing the 16th Amendment"--i.e., abolishing the federal income tax--and "ending government-dominated schools."
But this sort of fringe rhetoric is also what's driving so many Republicans so quickly and so unblinkingly into the more reassuring embrace of George W. Bush. Bush's challenge over the next year is to continue imposing his new "inclusive" line on the party while not provoking the hard right into open rebellion or desertion. His father failed to fully reassemble the cross-factional unity of the Reagan era. But fresh memories of the Gingrich debacle are working in W.'s favor. Back in the early phase of the 1996 campaign I recall reporting on a Florida Republican women's straw poll in which the overwhelming sentiment regarding Bob Dole was that he was an uninspiring but inevitable burden that just had to be resigned to. Now, there's a dramatic shift in mainstream GOP ranks--almost a frenzy to sign on to the Bush candidacy.
It's among Democrats, in fact, that there's open disgruntlement over the supposed inevitability of the flagging Al Gore candidacy. Indeed, there was an audible pro-Bill Bradley buzz among frightened Iowa Democrats as the former New Jersey senator toured the state the week of the straw poll, trying to take advantage of the media spotlight. Further, to confront George W. Bush effectively the Democrats are going to have to find some proactive vision to campaign on. The Clinton-era strategy of simply putting Newt's face on the GOP and offering the Democrats as a kinder, gentler option is being eclipsed. Democrats who think they can counter Bush by simply pointing at his pro-gun and anti-choice positions have not yet seen the Texas governor in action. And Democrats' attempts to hit Bush on his lavish campaign financing evaporate against reports that the Democratic National Committee intends to raise $200 million in soft money from special interests. Likewise, Bush is fully inoculated against frat-boy and drug-use charges by the public revulsion over Monicagate. Unless the Democrats can come up with a clear post-Clinton strategy, they risk a stern licking from someone who has studied them well.