WASHINGTON — OK, most of us are bored with the Iranian arms mess. But it's more than a bunch of Central Intelligence Agency gunrunners, wild-eyed Tehran mullahs and Errol Flynn characters operating out of the White House. It's also an episode that could marginally redefine American politics--not just by increasing Democratic chances to win the White House in 1988 (although it does), but also by shuffling presidential prospects and strategies within the Republican Party.
Three developments underscore the increasing impact of the Iran- contra imbroglio within the GOP: December's nose-diving poll support for Vice President George Bush, the related rise of Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and mid-January's attempted New Right draft of feisty White House Communications Director Patrick J. Buchanan as a 1988 contender. Iran-linked dynamics were operating in each case.
Dole, boosted by his clever minuet of disagreement with fumbling Reaganite tactics on the Iranian- contra scandal, has to some extent become a rallying point for critics and skeptics of the Administration. Arch-loyalist Buchanan, by contrast, ignited a brush fire among Reaganite stalwarts convinced that only political recrimination and hand-to-hand ideological combat could save the Reagan Revolution. And Bush, for his part, was caught in the middle on two troubling dimensions: the faint possibility of greater-than-revealed vice presidential knowledge of the arms scandal plus a loyalty to Ronald Reagan too uncritical for skeptics and too genteel for true believers.
The flurry over Buchanan was particularly revealing. In contrast to other conservative contenders looking toward 1988, fire-eater Buchanan has the temperament and capacity to resurrect a campaign of frustration that's been apparent twice before in post-World War II GOP politics. During the Eisenhower era in 1959-60, and then again during the post-Watergate Ford regime in 1975-76, conservatives turned bitter as they saw a GOP administration dominated by moderates lose headway after serious election defeats (1958, 1974).
It was amid those disillusioned last years of a stymied GOP White House that the 1964 Barry M. Goldwater and 1976 Reagan movements began gathering force. Today's sourness following the GOP's Senate loss and increasing frustration over the Iranian- contra scandal is not dissimilar--including the psychological pressure on rightists to find a new face and sound a new trumpet.
Nevertheless, conservatives now seem to have shrunk back from the idea of mounting a banzai charge replete with attacks on the liberal media, charges of betrayal in Central America and the like. Captained by someone like Buchanan, it might have won about 15%-20% of the 1988 Republican primary vote, but probably no more. That isn't necessarily a failure, mind. In point of fact, a Buchanan-style, hard-line, right-wing protest candidate may have more 1988 primary vote-getting potential than the other conservative contenders seeking the nomination--Rep. Jack F. Kemp of New York and TV evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson. That's because events of the last few months are changing the tenor of U.S. conservatism. For one thing, America's tenuous mid-1980s optimism has ebbed. A Roper poll in early December for U.S. News & World Report and Cable News Network found that a majority of Americans once again believe the United States is on the wrong track. A Gallup sampling found a similar result. Hostility to the media is widespread.
Concerns like these are tailor-made for a polarization-type campaign resurrecting themes from George C. Wallace, Spiro T. Agnew and even circa-1976 Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the past tense isn't altogether appropriate; Buchanan's Jan. 20 non-candidacy announcement was vaguely hedged by statements that a declaration "in the near future" would be divisive among conservatives, and that Kemp and Robertson need "more time to prove their electability or lack thereof." Buchanan's sister and closest adviser, former U.S. Treasurer Angela M. (Bay) Buchanan Jackson, candidly told the press that Kemp's people requested more time to show their man's viability. If Kemp fails to voice the right issues and continues to lag, she said, "I will be knocking down my brother's door" to get him to change his mind and run.