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In Politics, It's Movement vs. Mainstream

May 16, 1999|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — All set for the 2000 presidential primaries? There may be more of them than you think. One contest for the Democrats and two for the Republicans. Yes, two GOP races. One to pick the candidate of the mainstream Republicans. The other for leader of the movement conservatives.

The New Hampshire primary picks the winner of each title. Ten candidates go in, two come out. One from column A, one from column B. Then the mainstream candidate typically beats the movement candidate, and it's all over.

It looks like there'll be five contenders for the mainstream title next year, with Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the lead. Just about the whole GOP establishment has trekked down to Austin, Texas, to give Bush its blessing. "I am proud of the leaders who have come together to help me explore the prospects of a national campaign," Bush said on March 7, when he announced the formation of his exploratory committee. On that committee: Haley Barbour, former chair of the Republican National Committee. Bush's policy advisors include GOP royalty like Dick Cheney, former chief of staff in the Ford White House, and George P. Shultz, President Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. Mainstreamers are inclusive. They're the "big tent" Republicans. Former transportation and labor secretary Elizabeth H. Dole was asked, "Would you curtail involvement with international organizations that promote abortion?" Her answer: "A number of these organizations are important to us and to stability around the world, so the answer would be 'no' to that."

Mainstream Republicans are problem-solvers. Big government is the problem. "My campaign will have three basic ideas," former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander said at his March announcement. "They are: to fix public education; to improve family incomes by lowering taxes and securing Social Security; and to strengthen our national defense."

Mainstream Republicans are devoted free traders and internationalists. Bush, Dole and Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona all strongly support allied military action in Kosovo, in virtually the same language. McCain: "We need to do whatever is necessary to win." Bush: "Now that we're engaged, we must win." Dole: "I think we have to win this war. Win it, absolutely." McCain is a maverick competing for the mainstream title. He has challenged the establishment on issues like campaign-finance reform. Which may be why he's lagging in the polls.

House budget committee chair John R. Kasich of Ohio is another maverick mainstreamer. Kasich's specialty is pushing the party establishment along. "In 1989, I started to say we should balance the budget. A lot of people in my party said, 'No way.' And we got it done," Kasich boasted. "I said we needed to close loopholes on large corporations. They said, 'No, we shouldn't.' And we got it done."

Bush is the guy to beat for the mainstream title. Kasich calls Bush "a five-star restaurant nobody's ever eaten in." Dole has gender appeal. McCain and Kasich can pull anti-establishment votes. And Alexander? Well, slow and steady sometimes wins the race.

The contest for the movement title looks wide open. That race, too, has five contenders. One old crusader, Patrick J. Buchanan. He took the movement title in the last two campaigns. Plus two rookies, Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire and former Family Research Council president Gary L. Bauer. If mainstream Republicans argue "We can win," movement conservatives insist, "We won't back down." "I don't care what the polls say," Bauer asserted. "I will never sacrifice one American child, born or unborn."

Movement Republicans fancy themselves as populists. Most challenge the mainstream positions on trade and Kosovo. Smith on Kosovo: "I don't think we're meant to be a 911 peacekeeping force." Buchanan on trade: "With each decade, American becomes addicted to the narcotic of cheap imports." And on Kosovo: "a Balkan Bay of Pigs." Two contenders have shifted from the mainstream to the movement. Though he served as vice president, it's hard for Dan Quayle to run on the argument he can win. So he's running on a different argument. "What is the greatest challenge facing America today?" Quayle said when he announced his candidacy. "Is it jobs, or is it values? It is values. Of course it is." His emphasis on values puts him in the conservative movement.

Mainstream Republicans weren't too accommodating to Steve Forbes in 1996, so this time he's taking them on with his own values pitch. In a speech to conservative activists in January, Forbes denounced "the tragic 26th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade; and the absolute refusal of the Republican establishment to talk about it, much less do something about it." In the movement crowd, Forbes has the most plausibility because he's got the most money. But if conservatives want to win enough, they may go with Bush. Many already have.

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