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New Ideas Will Never Nominate the Next U.S. President

December 27, 1987|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — The 1987 presidential campaign is over. And the winner is: George Bush. How did Bush do it? By following the Abbe Sieyes strategy. When asked what he had done during the French Revolution, the French prelate replied, "I survived."

Bush survived by following one of the oldest rules in politics: Stay away from big ideas. They only get you into trouble. During 1987, a certain correlation became noticeable in both parties. The candidates who gained the most--Bush, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis--were selling competence and professionalism. The candidates selling ideas--Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV--stayed at the back. Two Democrats who started experimenting with big ideas--Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois--ended up getting burned.

But didn't Ronald Reagan win the 1980 election because he was the candidate with big ideas? Not exactly. Reagan almost lost the 1980 election because he had so many big ideas. He made voters nervous with his talk about rolling back big government and standing tall in foreign affairs. People were afraid he would start a war and throw old people out into the snow.

Reagan was elected in spite of, not because of, big ideas; after Jimmy Carter, voters wanted change. Only after Reagan's reassuring debate performance--"Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"--did people feel he was a safe choice. He won with a bare majority--50.7%.

Sometime during the past year, Vice President Bush discovered he didn't need big ideas to win the GOP nomination. His strong suit is loyalty to Reagan and he is playing that for all it's worth. Among Republicans, it is worth a great deal. The press, of course, complained that Bush could not claim to be "his own man."

So Bush made a few comments about being "the best President for education this country has ever seen" to show he had his own agenda. He "broke with Reagan" by opposing tax increases in the recent deficit-reduction compromise. Neither issue gives Republicans any problems. No one asks Bush how he intends to pay for his education program; Democrats are the only ones who have to explain how they intend to pay for things. And as for breaking with Reagan by pledging, "No new taxes, period," that's like being more Catholic than the Pope.

Right now, only two people can take the Republican nomination away from Bush. One is Reagan. The President has shown no inclination to be critical of Bush, however. The other is Bush. That is a bigger problem. Bush has a tendency to do foolish things. After the Iran-Contra hearings, Bush bragged that he had not been implicated because he was "outside the loop." On his recent trip to Europe, he made some unwise comments about the relative skills of U.S. and Soviet workers. And when he lost a straw poll in Iowa, he explained that supporters must have been "at their daughters' coming-out parties, or teeing up at the golf course."

None of these gaffes was serious enough to deny Bush the nomination. Basically, the Republican campaign consists of a bunch of candidates waiting for Bush to say something really stupid. But so far Bush has used each debate to make the point that "loyalty is not a character flaw." He is then declared the winner.

Bush's chief competitor for the GOP nomination, Dole, seems embarrassed by ideas. Dole seems interested in issues only for their strategic value. His handling of the current arms-control treaty is a good example. First Dole reserved judgment as a signal to conservative critics that he was no knee-jerk Reagan loyalist (like you-know-who). Then, discovering that the treaty had immense support among Republican faithful, Dole appeared at Reagan's side to announce that he would lead the fight for ratification. None of this was exactly a bold display of conviction.

Dole's message to Republicans is that he takes the deficit seriously and is willing to preside over a regime of austerity to cut it. Traditional Republicans don't mind that. They have been taking the deficit seriously and calling for austerity for more than 50 years, even when there was no deficit. Dole has a different message for Democrats when he says the GOP has to become the party of compassion, reaching out to the disadvantaged and disabled. Since he is not a Democrat, no one asks him how he intends to pay for this.

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