PHILADELPHIA — There is little reason for Republicans to have fond memories of this gritty city. The last time they gathered here for their national convention, they nominated Thomas E. Dewey, who pratfalled into history by blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead against Harry S. Truman in the 1948 presidential race.
A loss in this year's race would stun the GOP almost as much. Republicans arrive as confident as a coach sending out Randy Johnson against a Little League squad. Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour catches the mood when he declares: "A majority of Americans have decided they don't want Albert Gore as president, but the next step is to decide they do want George W. Bush. That's why it's Bush's election to win."
Republicans have good reason to feel optimistic. Since both men effectively clinched their parties' nominations on March 7, Bush has proved a more agile campaigner than Gore. The Texas governor has consistently led in the national polls, and he's running surprisingly well in a long list of Democratic strongholds, even as he's impressively consolidated the GOP base.
But the Republican euphoria still carries a faint whiff of 1988, when Democrats felt they were destined to regain the White House. That year, many Democrats still believed that Ronald Reagan had won his two elections with guile and charm, not his ideas; once he left the scene, they felt supremely confident they would beat his vice president, the elder George Bush--a man who emphatically lacked Reagan's political skills. Replace the name Reagan with Bill Clinton and Bush with Gore and you'd have a summary of what many Republicans believe today.
The elder Bush, of course, won in 1988. And he won in a way that could prove relevant now. After Reagan's two big victories, most Democrats knew they had to change in 1988, but they weren't yet ready for a wholesale shift. In that mind-set, they nominated Michael S. Dukakis, who constituted a step toward the center on economic issues, but upheld the party's traditional liberalism on social issues (such as his opposition to the death penalty).
It turned out Dukakis wasn't different enough to regain the allegiance of swing voters who had flocked to Reagan; Bush bludgeoned him on his socially liberal views en route to a solid victory. Only the shock of Dukakis' defeat opened Democrats four years later to a Clinton agenda that dragged his party toward the center on economic and social issues. Dukakis, in short, proved a halfway house between the traditional liberalism of Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Clinton's "New Democrat" message eight years later.
George W. Bush is a vastly more talented politician than Dukakis and is unlikely to be overcome as easily. But in the history of his party's ideological debates, he's playing a similar role. Like Dukakis, Bush is offering Republicans change, but change within limits.
Compared with the antigovernment fervor of the GOP Congress in 1995 and 1996, Bush constitutes a clear step toward the center. He explicitly separated himself from the revolutionary generation of conservatives last year when he derided "the destructive mind-set . . . that if government would only get out of our way, all of our problems would be solved." He is proposing an enhanced and creative federal role in leveraging education reform and modest but measurable federal initiatives to help working-poor families buy homes, purchase health insurance and accumulate financial assets. He's also notably moderated the GOP tone on controversies with a racial tinge--such as affirmative action and immigration.
But on the issues of greatest concern to the Republican base, Bush's views are entirely in the conservative mainstream. In his support for tax cuts, missile defense, school vouchers and partial privatization of Social Security--and his opposition to legal abortion and most gun control--Bush reaffirms rather than redirects the GOP consensus. Nothing in Bush's agenda challenges his party's dominant ideology as fundamentally as Clinton did with his support for welfare reform or later the balanced budget and paying off the national debt. As leading conservative strategist Grover Norquist recently said of Bush: "On everybody's central issue within the Reagan coalition, he's there."
Bush's selection of Dick Cheney as his running mate last week also suggests the limits of the Texan's ambition to remake his party. When Clinton chose Gore as his No. 2 in 1992, he not only amplified his centrist message, he put Gore on track to win the nomination he's claimed this year. That's institutionalized Clinton's direction for his party. In Cheney, by contrast, Bush selected a running mate who personifies the traditional conservative consensus on almost all domestic issues and lacks any ties to the new directions Bush has offered. In any case, at 59, with three heart attacks in his past, Cheney is unlikely to uphold any Bush legacy by seeking the White House himself.