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Scanning for Novas in the GOP Heavens

March 30, 1997|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

Will Rogers was wrong. He said, "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat." Well, guess which party is falling apart these days? Sorry, Will. It's the GOP.

All Republicans today claim to be direct lineal descendants of Ronald Reagan. Like most descendants, they're squabbling over the inheritance. A poll taken last month found the Republicans doubly divided. They're split between economic and social conservatives. That's well-known. But economic and social conservatives are also divided among themselves. That's new.

Economic conservatives are split between deficit hawks and supply-siders. Supply-siders believe tax cuts are the solution. The solution for what? For economic growth, the deficit, poverty, crime--whatever. Just cut taxes and abortion will be resolved, AIDS will be cured, the Middle East will be pacified and O.J. will confess.

Social conservatives are divided between moralists, whose top concern is "family values" (meaning opposition to abortion and homosexuality) and what the study calls "cultural populists." What are "cultural populists"? The pollsters hem and haw, calling them "very hard-edged on issues like crime, drugs, affirmative action and welfare." Could "cultural populism" have something to do with, oh, maybe . . . race?

The GOP is not a racist party. But ever since Richard M. Nixon pursued his successful "Southern strategy" in the late '60s, many racial-backlash voters have found their way into the GOP. Race certainly has something to do with the fact that most Southern white voters have turned Republican.

With no dominant figure uniting the GOP, the race for 2000 is wide open. Each faction is searching for a horse to ride.

Supply-siders have two horses to pick from: Steve Forbes and Jack F. Kemp. In 1996, Forbes said he would not have run for president if Kemp had run. But then Kemp was named to the ticket, so it's every supply-sider for himself. Sure enough, they both had something to say about a big tax cut passed last week by a state legislature. "I hope that Washington, D.C., is watching," said Kemp. "This is an example of courageous political leadership that should be followed by the United States Congress," said Forbes. The state? Iowa.

The deficit hawks' last hero was Bob Dole. The problem is: The deficit is not a winning issue. The last man elected president on a campaign that made balancing the budget the top priority was: Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Look what happened to Dole last year. He was getting no mileage out of the deficit issue, so he became an 11th-hour convert to the supply-side faith: "To hell with balancing the budget--tax cuts all around!"

Sen. Phil Gramm ran on the deficit issue last year, and he didn't even make it as far as New Hampshire. Why not? One theory goes like this: Voters didn't like him. Gramm may try again in 2000. After all, he's from Texas. Remember the Alamo?

The rising star among deficit hawks is a young Ohio congressman, Rep. John R. Kasich, chair of the House Budget Committee. Kasich is brash, boyish and immensely personable. And he just got married, ratcheting up his standing on the Mention Meter.

Did we say brash? Last month, Kasich had this to say about entitlements: "The issues of Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security--what are we going to do to convince the American people that we're prepared to deal with those tough issues?" Shut up, is what a lot of GOP strategists would advise.

The hero of "cultural populists," once and forever, is Nixon. They shared Nixon's seething resentments--of the press, the establishment, the Kennedys. And who was Nixon's top speech writer and staunchest defender? Patrick J. Buchanan, new champion of the populist cause. Buchanan shares the people's resentments, including some with racial overtones. Like when he said last year, "Friends, if we can send an army halfway around the world to defend the borders of Bosnia and to defend the borders of Kuwait, why can't we defend the borders of the United States of America?"

The religious right never jumped on the Buchanan bandwagon in 1992 or 1996, though he is staunchly anti-abortion and anti-gay rights. They didn't want him as their horse. You see, the religious right is not out to bring down the GOP establishment. They want to join it.

The religious right hasn't had a horse to ride since Pat Robertson fell off the saddle back in 1988. Will they have one in 2000? Dan Quayle is their favorite, and family values is his issue. Could Quayle bring the religious right legitimacy? Well, he was vice president. But he was also a national joke. Maybe they can convince William J. Bennett to run.

The Fabrizio, McLaughin poll identifies "progressives" as a fifth faction of the GOP. Are there any "progressive" Republicans left? Sure, 5% to 10% of the party. They are "Volvo Republicans"--affluent, well-educated, fiscally conservative and distressed by the stranglehold the religious right has on their party.

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