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Enter: The Fat Lady

An Election Premortem

November 03, 1996|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

Finally, it's over. Well, not quite. But why wait until the body is cold to start picking over the remains? Let's do it now and get it over with, before the recriminations begin.

All we need is a coroner to carry out . . . well, let's not call it an autopsy. More like a pre-mortem of the 1996 campaign.

How did the GOP end up with Bob Dole?

It all goes back to the New Hampshire primary. Before New Hampshire, Dole looked weak and vulnerable--just as he does now. Steve Forbes was the hot Republican back in January--on the covers of Time and Newsweek before a single vote was cast. Dole's morose response to President Bill Clinton's State of the Union speech on Jan. 23 nearly finished the frontrunner off.

Then an amazing thing happened. Patrick J. Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 20--and sent tremors through the GOP. Buchanan's victory was a godsend for Dole. Dole knew the GOP would never, ever nominate Buchanan. But it gave Republicans a reason to vote for Dole: He was the only candidate who could stop Buchanan.

As long as the rest of the field was divided between Dole, Forbes and Lamar Alexander, Buchanan could squeak through with narrow plurality victories, just as he did in New Hampshire.

The religious right played a critical role. Buchanan carried the religious right vote in Louisiana, Iowa and New Hampshire. That horrified religious right leaders, who did not want to see Buchanan become their horse in this race. For more than a decade, Christian conservatives have been fighting for "a place at the table" in the GOP. Buchanan would have carried them off to the party fringes.

So the religious right mobilized behind Dole in South Carolina. That was the breakthrough primary for Dole. And the coup de grace for Buchanan. When Republicans ask themselves how in the world Dole became their standard-bearer, they have Buchanan to thank for it.

Could any Republican have defeated Clinton?

No. This election is a referendum on the president, not on his Republican opponent. No incumbent president with a job approval rating in the high 50's loses a bid for reelection. Voters believe Clinton did what he was elected to do: turn the economy around. Just as in 1984, voters believed Ronald Reagan did what he was elected to do: end the economic crisis and restore the nation's military security.

Dole is the challenger this year, and the challenger has to sell change. The problem is, when people are happy with the incumbent's performance, there isn't much of a market for change. Not like 1992, when the electorate was in a frenzy for change.

Dole has another problem. He doesn't look like a candidate of change to most voters. Not after 35 years in Washington. When voters are asked, "Which candidate do you think will bring needed change to government?" the answer, amazingly, is Clinton--the incumbent!

Another Republican might have had greater credibility as a candidate of change. Maybe Alexander, who marketed himself as an "outsider." (Remember the flannel shirts?) Maybe Forbes, who really was a political outsider. Maybe Pete Wilson, if he could have figured out some way to get the nomination without splitting the party over abortion. Any one of them might have done better than Dole. But none would have done better than Clinton.

What happened to last winter's populist insurrection?

It never happened. And its leader was Buchanan.

Buchanan spoke the language of economic discontent. He expressed the fear and anger of workers threatened with downsizing. He targeted big corporations and foreign trade. That was one reason why Buchanan made the GOP establishment so nervous. Mainstream Republicans support big business and free trade.

But as it turns out, economic issues had little to do with Buchanan's support. His voters gave top priority to social issues--abortion, gay rights and gun control, for example. His following consisted mainly of social conservatives, angry that the GOP was selling them out. Reagan and George Bush never delivered on the social agenda. Neither did Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the GOP Congress.

In exit polls during the primaries, Buchanan voters did not cite economic issues as a major reason for their discontent. Theirs was a specifically political protest, aimed at the political establishment that they felt had betrayed them.

Nonetheless, the press dutifully took Buchanan at his word and wrote all kinds of stories about the deteriorating situation of American workers. There was only one problem. It wasn't true. Economists pointed out that the welfare of American workers has actually been improving, and that more U.S. jobs are being created than destroyed by world trade.

Indeed, Americans themselves report they feel better off economically. If they're worried, it's not because of their own bad economic experiences. It's because of all the stories they read about corporate layoffs and downsizing.

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