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As Gephardt Grows Into Liberal Cloth, Robertson Will Keep Center Off Limits

February 10, 1988|ROSS K. BAKER | Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, is the author of the coming book "House and Senate" (W.W. Norton) .

Seen exclusively in the light of the waxing and waning of individual campaigns, the result of the Iowa precinct caucuses are only moderately interesting.

Bruce Babbitt fades. Gary Hart is reduced to a statistical blip. Jack Kemp's Victorian economic philosophy fails to sell. Albert Gore waits in the weeds. Pat Robertson is exalted, and George Bush is cast down. Three guys named Richard Gephardt, Paul Simon and Michael Dukakis move their bumper cars to New Hampshire, and Bob Dole, with his dyspeptic partisanship only barely in check, looks like the Republican to beat.

With the exception of Robertson's organizational tour de force , it was all pretty much in line with what had been predicted. But when the caucuses are viewed in terms of the appeals and the philosophies that seem to be dominant or on the ascent in both parties, Iowa foreshadows an ideological clash in November even more stark than 1984.

What can be said of the Democratic Party is that it is unapologetically liberal. The fact that Democrats now venerate balanced budgets so ostentatiously is no more an indication of their moving to the right than the fact that liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey came out against crime in 1968. Fiscal prudence is now what is known as a valance issue--one that is so broadly accepted that it no longer serves to delineate the parties.

That liberalism sells with Democratic voters is attested to eloquently by the philosophical migration of Gephardt. He is a man with almost barometric sensitivity to changes in the political atmosphere. Until he came onto the scene as a presidential hopeful, Gephardt's wind gauge responded to the moderately conservative breezes from Missouri's 3rd Congressional District. From the late 1970s, when the Carter presidency began its decline, to the point at which he launched his presidential bid, Gephardt occupied that politically indeterminate zone called neo-liberalism--which was always more "neo" than it was liberal, in that it appealed to younger Democrats who wanted to distinguish themselves from the unfashionable doctrines of the 1960s. But neoliberalism was never more than a temporary refuge for Democrats who needed a place to hide out and plan during the politically inauspicious years of the Ronald Reagan presidency.

But as ill-fitting as the liberal garment feels to Gephardt, he has learned that it is the only fashion that sells among primary voters. Simon and Dukakis came to that realization more directly than Gephardt did because their home constituencies are more liberal--or at least more diverse than his. Jesse Jackson's base is the most liberal of all, and no Democratic rival can afford to distance himself from it; if there is any group of Americans that is unshakably reliable in its Democratic voting habits in 1988, it is black voters. It remains to be seen on March 8, Super Tuesday, whether Albert Gore can stimulate the phagocytes of the white Southern voters who have deserted the Democrats so consistently in recent presidential elections but remain the hope of those who want to swing the party toward the political center. If those passions are capable of being stirred, Gore has yet to demonstrate that he can play the spiritual rouser.

On the Republican side, it is an excess of spiritual fervor that poses a threat of destabilization. The contrived cheer with which Sen. Dole and Vice President Bush put out the welcome mat for Robertson supporters concealed profound uneasiness. Both Dole and Bush had been beneficiaries of the true political genius of Ronald Reagan, whose engaging personality and message had forged a coalition of economic conservatives and social conservatives. To the business community he gave tax cuts and relief from regulation; to the religious right he gave mostly passionate rhetoric and conservative appointees but was unable to deliver on any wish-list items like school prayer and an anti-abortion amendment. Reagan gave voice to the grievances of the social conservatives without being one of them.

Now evidently they want someone who has actually been washed in the blood of the lamb. It may be that most Republican voters want a Dole-type nominee, and it may also be that some GOP supporters will not cast a ballot for Robertson under any circumstances. But the former religious broadcaster is now firmly established as the Republicans' Jesse Jackson--a candidate who commands a passionate and committed minority and who is prepared to exact a price. At the very least, Robertson's success ensures that whoever is the party's choice in New Orleans this summer will be deterred from moving too close to the ideological center. Reagan supporters in the business community never had much problem with the President's symbolic payoff to the social conservatives. Having one of them in the White House, however, is greatly unsettling.

The ascendant messages in both parties after Iowa come from the candidates who promised the voters to protect them from the effects of change. Those who feel economically dislocated will hearken to the most liberal Democrats; those who feel threatened by social upheavals in recent years will find the Robertson message reassuring. These elements in both parties may not now constitute majorities, but they represent a longing to return to a simpler and nobler past with its economic certainties and moral verities.

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