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Litmus Tests for Parties, Possibilities

August 31, 1986|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion.

WASHINGTON — Could Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca be elected President? The answer is yes, probably. Iacocca has the image of someone who gets things done, and the polls show him handily defeating all potential contenders, Democrats and Republicans alike. The problem is, could he be nominated? The answer, probably no. He would fail too many litmus tests.

Democratic activists would ask, "Is this guy one of us?" The same thing would happen if Iacocca decided to compete for the Republican nomination. If he ran in Republican primaries, Iacocca would end up like John B. Connally. As a Democrat, he would end up like John Glenn.

Party leaders like to say that a political party is a big tent, with room inside for all kinds of people. That certainly used to be true. Democrats ran the gamut from Southern white racists to blacks and Northern liberals. The old GOP included right-wingers like Barry M. Goldwater and left-wingers like John V. Lindsay.

In recent years, however, the tents have shrunk. Racists and right-wingers are no longer welcome in the Democratic tent. Liberal Republicans face a choice of either losing (like former Sens. Jacob K. Javits of New York and Thomas H. Kuchel of California) or leaving (like Lindsay and John Anderson).

In every presidential election from 1964 through 1976, supporters could demonstrate that New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller was the strongest potential Republican candidate. But when Republican activists and primary voters asked, "Is he one of us?" the answer was not encouraging. Rockefeller wasn't a real conservative, and so, to the newly conservatized GOP, he wasn't a real Republican. He was outside the tent.

When Sen. John Glenn of Ohio ran for President in 1980, he claimed to be the most "electable" Democratic candidate. That may have been true, but the Democrats who attend caucuses and vote in primaries demanded to know: "Is he one of us?" Glenn's attacks on Walter F. Mondale as the candidate of the past and special interests rang true to many Democrats. Eventually, they became the theme of Gary Hart's nearly successful campaign for the nomination. But they didn't work for Glenn. Over and over, at meetings of Iowa Democrats, Glenn's competitors would point to him and say, "This man voted for Reaganomics!" And even worse, "This man voted for poison nerve gas!" That was too much for student activists and radical nuns. The Iowa judgment was that Glenn was not a liberal and not a real Democrat. It didn't matter how electable he was. He was outside the tent.

Of course, litmus tests have been around for a long time. It used to be that every Democrat with national ambitions had to go before a labor audience and proclaim commitment to the repeal of Section 14B of the Taft-Hartley Act, allowing states to pass anti-union "right-to-work" laws. As the party tents have grown smaller, however, the tests for getting in have gotten tougher. To be a "real Republican" today--or at least a Republican with national aspirations --you have to be a conservative. And to be a "real Democrat," you have to be a liberal, at least on the crucial tests.

Who determines what is politically correct in each party? In the Soviet Union, a one-party state with an official ideology, it's easy. Remember Mikhail Suslov? He was the chief ideologist of the Soviet Communist Party. Whenever the party wanted to try something new--like, say, invading Afghanistan or allowing peasants to sell cabbages in the free market--they would go to Comrade Suslov and ask if such a policy was politically correct or incorrect. Suslov would consult the Marxist scriptures and issue a ruling. He determined who was right-wing revisionist, who was left-wing adventurist and who was centrist opportunist. He must have done pretty well: Suslov survived every purge, every upheaval and every change in Soviet leadership from Vladimir I. Lenin to Konstantin U. Chernenko.

In the United States, things are messier. What we have in each party are issue activists who guard the party orthodoxy in their own special areas.

Since the job of chief ideologist has not yet been established here--one shortcoming of the Constitution that we must remedy--here, as a service to readers, is a brief "Suslov's guide" to current party orthodoxy.

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