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Democrats Reap Benefits of GOP's Internecine War

DECODING THE CAMPAIGN. Another in a series of articles critiquing the '92 presidential strategies.

March 08, 1992|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — Funny how some things never change. Every four years, about this time, the Democrats are in a bitter slugfest for the nomination, threat ening irreparable damage to the party's general election chances. But this year is different. Sure, the Democrats are fighting, but it'll be over sooner than usual--with less blood spilled. No, folks, this year the main event is in the GOP.

One of the few conclusions that can be drawn with clarity this year is: Patrick J. Buchanan is beating the deep doodoo out of George Bush. Not at the polls, but in ways that will damage his campaign more than his incompetent advisers know.

The most apparent effect is Bush's stumbling move to the right: His "flop of a flip of a flop" on raising taxes, as Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine put it--with his latest admission that it was a big mistake ("Read my slips"); his recent pledge to evangelicals to be forever against abortion; his firing of the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and his current preparation to veto a tax raise for millionaires.

The irony of these moves to pacify the Hard Right is that they are doing little to help Bush now and will potentially do enormous damage to him in the fall. For this vacated middle ground is where presidential elections are won and where Democrats are already making inroads.

Buchanan's charges and Bush's reactions give Democrats all the firepower they need against the incumbent. Go ahead Democratic nominee, whoever you may be, attack Bush as an unprincipled opportunist with no core belief other than desiring reelection. Let's call him an out-of-touch elitist, with no clue about the daily problems of common folks. Or why not charge him with having no idea about how bad the economy is or what he should do about it, because his time and attention is devoted to spending our money overseas. And while we're at it, let's thank Republican Buchanan for doing the setup work on all the above. Keep those body blows coming, Pat, it'll help us save our strength for the fall kill.

Buchanan also helps Democrats because of what he represents to the GOP. Buchanan is every slightly hip Reagan Republican's worst nightmare of why the GOP was the minority for a good part of the 20th Century and why it may regress.

He's the Republican family's version of the ancient bilious uncle who, after a couple of drinks at a holiday dinner, offers his peculiar opinions to the increasingly uncomfortable gathering. As the children are hurried from the room, his ideas come pouring out: the onslaught of immigrants trying to steal what "we" built up; the hints of Semitic conspiracy covertly operating Washington's levers of power; the darker underclasses emboldened by liberal permissiveness to seize the wealth and sex they covet; the relentless undermining of national values by the opportunistic, the naive and the sinister embodied in the modern trends of feminism, civil liberties and homosexuality.

The family's embarrassment does not only reside in public airing of bigotry. It lies in a recognition of kinship. Troubled Republicans acknowledge that much of Buchanan's invective is uncomfortably close to the ancient bone. They realize this skeleton rattling in the family's closet is their inheritance. The nativism, racism, anti-Semitism and elitism are their party's submerged dark past--disavowed but never quite disbelieved.

Bush's dilemma is that whatever he does is unlikely to help him much. Attacks on Buchanan will add to the alienation of hard-right conservatives, encouraging them to stay home in November. His moves to the right won't convert them but do threaten votes he'll need beyond the GOP. His squeals at the negative ads directed at him remind everyone else that Bush is getting a bit of his own medicine. Not to mention the utter stupidity of the Bush campaign's decision to run negative ads on Buchanan--making him a bona fide candidate without taking any votes from him. Brilliant, just brilliant!

Bush should just forget Buchanan. The 30% of the GOP voting for him would vote for Attila the Hun if he were on the ballot. Because they'll never like Bush, there is little he can do about them.

But, as a Democrat, I wish both Republicans a good, hard fight. Turn up the volume. Attack 'em again. Don't let the other guy get away with a thing. Keep it going a long time. And may the weakest man win. Many thanks, Pat!

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