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The Incredible Shrinking Party

Dole's weakness as a presidential candidate masks a deeper problem:The Republican Party seems to be losing record numbers of its own registered voters.

August 11, 1996|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His new book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of American Politics" (Little Brown)

BETHESDA, MD. — The challenge facing the Republicans streaming into San Diego is less to hail a vice-presidential nominee--few ever make much difference--than to find an alchemist who can turn the lead of the GOP's 1995-96 credibility collapse back into the golden hopes of November 1994.

Bob Dole, during the last six months, has become part of the collapse. But it's not just his flaws as a candidate; it's also the weakness of the party, and beyond that, of the message. Dole's running-mate selection process, like his pie-in-the-sky tax cuts, are symptoms of the problem, not solutions. And it's this that San Diego conventioneers need to face.

The former Kansas senator, after all, isn't the first about-to-be-finalized Republican presidential nominee of the 1990s to be told: "Please, you're an awful campaigner and you can't win; step aside so we can nominate somebody else." George Bush, remember, was given that same message in newspaper columns and even in hints from friends in the summer of 1992.

Even more to the point, Bush wasn't the only person on the 1992 ticket urged to step aside. Vice President Dan Quayle heard as much everyday: "You're hurting the ticket; you should get out."

During July's doldrums, Dole wasn't the only one one to get advice to think about folding his 1996 hand. House Speaker Newt Gingrich heard a similar refrain: "You're so controversial, such an albatross, that you're hurting the ticket; why don't you step down--retire and become a professor again (or make speeches)--otherwise, the Democrats will use you to defeat other Republicans in Congress."

Dole is a lackluster presidential candidate. Gingrich has achieved unprecedented levels of unpopularity as House speaker. Bush did take a 90% job-approval level down to 30% in just 16 months, and Quayle still reminds skeptics of a deer caught in headlights on a country highway. But it's hard to buy the idea of four flukes. In fact, all represent the mainstream viewpoints, and also the most elevated selection processes, of the national Republican Party of the 1990s.

The same can be said about Dole's biggest recent blunders--his back-and-forth, ever-changing position on abortion, and his election-year, Christmas-in-August, $500-billion big-contributor-tilted tax cut. These ineptitudes, straddles and seeming contradictions are not just Dole's; both issues involve the biggest divisions and special interests in the Republican coalition. The abortion tong wars and the fiscal bad blood between the balanced-budget zealots and the tax-cut Houdinis split the GOP like a latter-day Hatfield-vs.-McCoy feud. Aristotle or Machiavelli would be having trouble, too.

With national polls showing Dole down by 16-30 points, and California statewide surveys equally cheerless, the Republican Party is heading to San Diego in the worst shape since . . . well, since 1976, when appointive President Gerald R. Ford, down 20-25 points, had to try a longshot strategy himself and picked Dole as his running mate. Dole didn't have much impact in that year's campaign, which the GOP lost, and the same has been true of most of the other Republican vice-presidential nominees since World War II. Most Democrats, too, for that matter.

So Dole's insistence that he could find himself a "10" as a running mate was laughable. Even Colin L. Powell, whose selection and acceptance would have been an exciting gamble, was probably only an "8"--electoral counterforces would have begun moving immediately (like a Patrick J. Buchanan or religious-right third-party race). History, we can guess, will give Dole's 1996 veep choice a rating between "5" and "7," not much effect either way.

The central problem facing the Republican Party in San Diego is just that: the Republican Party. Earlier this year, its strategists were ready to write off California without understanding that the GOP presidential coalition that dominated the White House from 1968 to 1992 got its start and its two most important presidents, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, from California. Party thinkers, in turn, have been all too ready to fault message bearers--Bush, Quayle, Dole and Gingrich--to avoid coming to grips with their own tragically flawed 1995-96 blueprints. Most of all, it's a party on the verge of losing record numbers of its own registered supporters, and for the second time in a row.

Three major July polls--national surveys by CBS and Time/CNN and a California sampling by the Los Angeles Times--have shown Dole's share of the presidential vote among registered Republicans alone shrinking into the 60s. Some of this has been in the cards since mid-1995, when skepticism of the GOP's congressional performance and budget-cut excesses produced major disenchantment among rank-and-file Republican voters, further confirmed by polls last autumn showing 20%-30% of registered Republicans ready to support Powell or Ross Perot as independents in November.

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