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Buchanan Fights for Future Control of Party

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

March 08, 1992|Edward J. Rollins | Edward J. Rollins, White House political director from 1981-1985, served as Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — As the Reagan presidency ended, conservative activists in Washington began talking about themselves as a "Third Generation." It was a reference to the first wave of Republican conservatism, Barry M. Goldwater's campaign, and the fact that, with Ronald Reagan leaving office, the second wave was ebbing. The Third Generation saw themselves as up for grabs--a movement without a leader. Patrick J. Buchanan now claims to be that leader--with ominous implications for the GOP's prospects for keeping the White House.

Polls reveal about 25% to 30% of GOP voters are dissatisfied with George Bush. They are concerned about the economy. They believe the Administration doesn't care about people like them. They view the 1990 tax hike as a betrayal. They aren't better off now than four years ago.

Many are the younger generation whom Reagan attracted to the GOP. Buchanan is the vehicle for their protest. This is a political base that Buchanan adds or subtracts to state-by-state, depending on the way he runs his campaign. He can limit the base when he polarizes--as all polemicists tend to do. Buchanan is discovering this already with women and Jewish voters, constituencies where Reagan made inroads between 1980 and 1984. Whether Buchanan's base expands beyond 30%, as in Georgia, depends also on the President's reelection campaign strategy.

That's because, in many ways, the GOP primaries are a contest of Bush vs. Bush, not Bush vs. Buchanan. The Bush that voters loved in 1988 is now pitted against the Bush of 1992. Buchanan understands this, and continues to hammer at Bush's track record. Every time the Bush campaign engages Buchanan directly, they legitimize not only his campaign's attacks but also his candidacy. The reelection committee's efforts to drive Buchanan out of the race through appeals to party unity only energizes Buchanan supporters.

In about four weeks, Bush will have captured the 51% of convention delegates he needs to win the nomination. But Buchanan won't step out of the race. He's probably never had more fun than in the past 13 weeks, and he hasn't been troubled by the kind of personal problems many Democratic contenders have faced.

More important, Buchanan is quickly developing a group of supporters--and winning the allegiance of the Third Generation of conservative activists. This group is much smaller than his base of voters, but they are avid and committed and have vested interests--including bringing Bush down in the general election.

That's where the danger lies. Hopes that Buchanan will come back into the GOP tent and support Bush at the convention may be unrealistic, even absurd. Buchanan's supporters will push him to run as an independent--just as Reagan was urged to do when he lost the 1976 nomination to Gerald R. Ford.

Reagan didn't want the party split, although many of his supporters did. Buchanan, in contrast, might feel the best way to purge the GOP is to weaken it now in order to reconstruct it by 1996.

In the '80s, Reagan tried to build a majority party by uniting divergent constituencies. Reagan tried to attract not only conservatives and Republicans, but also ethnics, Catholics, Asians, blacks, blue-collar workers, youth and other non-traditional GOP voter groups. His was a party of inclusion.

It's a paradox that Reagan did the best job in political history of passing the baton to Bush--but he couldn't hand off the conservative torch as easily. That's the torch Buchanan feels within his grasp--even if he has to bring down a Republican President to get it. But Buchanan's GOP would be one of exclusion, not inclusion.

Bush's reelection campaign needs to understand this and pivot quickly on the playing field. Instead of attacking Buchanan, the campaign should engage Bill Clinton and Paul E. Tsongas. The President should stop debating what happened in the first term, and start defining his agenda for the next four years. That way he can move from defense to offense.

Bush should leave the contest for conservative torchbearer to those with the biggest stake in the battle--former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, Vice President Dan Quayle and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp.

Let them fight for the conservative movement's future. Bush should be fighting for the future of the country. He needs to spell out for voters his vision of where the country will be in five years. It's time to stop worrying about Buchanan and get ready for the main event.

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