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Revising Reagan's Pitch for '88 Races

January 18, 1987|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein writes about politics for the National Journal.

As a snapshot of a bygone time, consider these remarks by Donald J. Devine, the long-time conservative activist, now the chief political adviser to Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kans.):

"We've sort of built an expectation that everyone is going to be Ronald Reagan, and there's only one Ronald Reagan," Devine said. "I don't buy the notion that you have to present a new vision for America; Ronald Reagan has done that. You have to show how you fit into that."

Devine made those comments only last November, but they are already antediluvian, having been offered just before the flood of Iranian arms scandal revelations overwhelmed the White House and the Republican Party.

Forgive Devine. Up until last November, many Republicans expected that no matter who became their next nominee, the party's 1988 presidential campaign would consist of the three Rs: reelect Ronald Reagan. The two-term limit would prevent Reagan from running but whoever snatched the GOP banner would present himself as the man to continue Reagan's work. Up until last November, such an approach seemed plausible.

Then two things happened. The first was that we held an election on Nov. 4. The election served as the initial test for the reelect Reagan appeal, which political professionals commonly refer to as "continuance politics." Barnstorming ferociously, Reagan did everything he could to identify himself with Republican senators on the ballot.

Several first-term Republican senators--Mack Mattingly of Georgia and Jeremiah Denton of Alabama come to mind--based their campaigns almost entirely on continuance politics. Most of them are now inquiring whether the Senate has provisions for severance pay.

On the morning after Election Day, with the Democrats busily tacking up the scalps of six incumbent senators, continuance politics was looking a bit battered. Then, in the minds of most political professionals, it died an early death during the next month, as the Administration acknowledged secret arms sales and diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan contras . "For those who didn't hear the gong after the election," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, "they've heard it now."

The gong heralds a new political era. The one-two punch--election results and Iran- contras --have driven the GOP, more quickly than it would have liked, to a watershed it was bound to reach sooner or later. Over the past decade, in election after election, Republicans have generated extraordinary political voltage from two major themes: a populist appeal against big government and a standing-tall message in world affairs.

The anti-government appeal has, for now, lost most of its power. Voters refused to bite--largely because the Democrats refused to fight. In a break from the pugnacity of three previous campaigns, most Democrats ducked a direct debate with Reagan over the role of government in a rope-a-dope election. And the public--in large measure because it believes Reagan has trimmed the excesses of government--wasn't nearly as worried about big government as a decade ago. Less worry meant less resonance for Reagan's charges. "1986 saw Reagan become a victim of his own success in economic policy," said a Democratic campaign strategist.

Now, the Iran- contra controversy has unhinged the other leg on which Republicans have rested their case. Whatever further revelations the Senate and House investigating committees unearth, they are unlikely to produce a portrait of America standing tall against terrorists.

"We got into power more easily than people thought in 1980 based on the political symbolism of Iran--that the Democrats were weaker, more inactive and less clear on what the American image was worldwide," said Republican pollster V. Lance Tarrance. "What's happened with the Iranian scandal is at the least we're mixing our messages, which may take away some of the accelerators we've had, particularly with young people. And I know the Democrats are anxious to return some of the pain we inflicted on Iran."

Republican contenders face a conundrum. Poll after poll shows the general public unhappy with the apparent trading of arms for hostages and the subsequent diversion of funds to the Nicaragua contras . But the same polls show that Republican partisans who vote in the primaries, though confused and dismayed, still stand solidly behind the President.

That chain of loyalty has already wrapped itself around the ankles of all Republicans grappling with this issue. As a participant in some of the decisions, Vice President George Bush cannot hope to distance himself from the once-covert operation. But Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who could, has defended Reagan even more aggressively than the vice president. Dole has appeared the most independent, focusing his criticism primarily on procedural issues; on matters of substance, by and large, he, too, has been deferential toward the President.

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