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GOP Presidential Hopefuls Step in Sync on Most Issues

Politics: The ascent of Forbes sets off some conflict. But more convergence is seen than divergence.

February 06, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — All of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination agree that the existing tax code should be scrapped and replaced with something radically different.

So ironically the debate over the flat tax has provoked the sharpest disagreements in the race.

In its disproportion, the squall over tax reform illuminates two basic truths about the 1996 Republican presidential campaign. One is that all of the GOP contenders have coalesced around a broadly similar message of shrinking the federal government and devolving power outside of Washington. As a result, they must fight loudly about relative details to distinguish themselves from another.

The second truth, as the sound and fury over the flat tax shows, is that the struggle to precisely define that broad consensus is being driven less by the ostensible front-runner--Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole--than by Steve Forbes, the neophyte politician with the bottomless checkbook and the rising poll numbers.

It is Forbes' relentless touting of the flat tax that has forced the issue to center stage. And it is Forbes' perceived vulnerability on social concerns that is suddenly raising the profile of issues like abortion and immigration which had virtually vanished from the campaign's radar.

"It is remarkable," says Peter Wehner, policy director at the conservative think tank Empower America. "He is driving the agenda on a whole range of issues."

Even with the heated dispute over the flat tax--and the rising argument over abortion--the areas of convergence among the leading Republican candidates are still far more significant than the disagreements.

With the exception of Patrick J. Buchanan, who has stressed a bristling economic nationalism that repudiates the party's recent history of support for free trade and military engagement abroad, none of the leading contenders proposes to significantly shift the philosophical center of the party from the anti-government message that powered the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994. All promise to cut federal spending; all would eliminate the Education Department and institute private school vouchers; all say they would roll back federal affirmative action programs, repeal the ban on assault weapons and dramatically streamline the tax code.

Distinctions Exist

Important distinctions still exist--particularly in emphasis. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm puts more priority on cutting spending than Forbes; former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander is more enthusiastic about congressional reform than is Dole; Forbes, representing the Jack Kemp tradition, is warier than most of his rivals about policies that present a hard edge toward immigrants, the minorities or the poor.

But in 1996, Republicans face nothing like the fundamental arguments that divided Democrats in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 primaries over whether to stick with traditional liberalism or move toward the center, as contenders from Gary Hart to Bill Clinton urged. Nor do Republicans face anything approaching the ideological division they would have confronted had their presidential field included former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell, who expressed support for abortion rights, gun control and affirmative action.

"There is not a whole lot of ideological diversity among the Republican candidates," says Mark Merritt, the communications director for Alexander.

Balancing the budget, flattening the tax code, shifting control of social programs to the states, enlarging the role of private charities in delivering services to the poor and rolling back federal affirmative action programs--these are all common themes of the leading GOP contenders now and are likely to play a major role in the Republican campaign next fall.

"There is general convergence about the theme of moving more resources and power outside of Washington," says Adam Meyerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review. "On the issue that is the great debate of the mid-1990s--what should be the size and scope of the federal government--all of the Republican candidates agree."

But as they battle among each other for the nomination, the candidates have been compelled--as they are every four years--to accentuate and even exaggerate, their differences.

Just like marketing campaigns, political campaigns demand product differentiation, and relatively small differences have been magnified precisely because there is so much agreement on the big questions. For instance, in radio advertisements running in Louisiana, Buchanan is attacking Gramm as insufficiently committed to the anti-abortion cause--even though Gramm has a 100% lifetime voting record from the National Right to Life Committee.

But the debate over issues is sharpening also because of Forbes' ascent. During 1995, when Dole was the fulcrum of the race, the leading candidates spent relatively less time attempting to distinguish themselves on specific issues than on personal characteristics.

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