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Living in the Past

To win Super Tuesday's contests, George W. Bush has reassembled Barry M. Goldwater's 1964 coalition. Will the outcome be the same?

March 12, 2000|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, a political analyst and historian, wrote "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969. His most recent book is "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

WASHINGTON — Quick: Name the Republican presidential nominee who mobilized the old Confederacy, allied himself with fringe fundamentalists, raised buckets of money from Texas millionaires, offended the Northeast and sometimes left the impression of being unqualified for the White House.

The answer is Barry M. Goldwater, back in 1964. George W. Bush won't actually be the GOP presidential nominee until August. Still, the Bush analogy to Goldwater, who was beaten by Lyndon B. Johnson 61% to 39%, ought to give GOP party officials the shakes. It suggests yet another Republican presidential electorate divided and weakened, much like the losing coalitions of 1992 and 1996.

Super Tuesday's outcomes, especially the Bush delegate sweep in California, give the Texas governor a large lead, sure to be expanded by March 14 victories in Texas and Florida. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who no longer has a chance for the nomination, has three clear options: he can start laying the groundwork for a run as an independent; he can withhold endorsement of Bush until the latter commits to full campaign reform; or he can play party loyalist, back Bush and eat his own words.

For the Democrats, Tuesday's results mean Vice President Al Gore, their presumed nominee, may be able to count on a chunk of Republican or Republican-leaning independent voters when he faces a weakened Bush.

The Bush parallel to Goldwater is eerie. For those sometime GOP voters of moderate, reform-minded, Perotista or Northeastern origins, the message is deeply negative. The GOP's first convergence of Confederate flags, televangelists and Texas megabucks, which appeared 36 years ago to rally for Goldwater, was an aberration. The 2000 convergence, however, is the logical result of the GOP's Bible Belt focus, fund-raising preoccupation and anti-reform evolution that occurred over the last three decades, especially the last 12 years. It is no coincidence.

In this context, Bush's grab of "compassionate conservatism" and "reform with results" is hard to take too seriously. It tends to shrivel against the backdrop of his recent reliance on the GOP's powerful checkbook and preacher wings.

As this sinks in, and despite some predictable Bush zigs and zags in the direction of reform and compassion, it's likely to cause a repetition of 1992 and 1996: the bolting of GOP-leaning moderates and populists to the Democratic or Reform tickets. Indeed, the Republican role as the proud champion of money and financial power--GOP leaders equate tax cuts with statesmanship and political contributions with free speech--stamps the party as unmistakably as its connections to Bob Jones University and Pat Robertson do.

The two roles, in fact, go together. McCain was wrong in February when he scoffed at the religious right and GOP power brokers and "their failed philosophy that money is our message." Among GOP voters in state after state on Tuesday, the party's leadership and religious right clobbered McCain, who helped them by letting himself get too shrill. Money is still the message, and any failure won't come until November.

The big change since the Goldwater years is that the upper reaches of the religious right--Robertson, Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition, along with the National Right to Life Committee--are no longer outsiders but part of the GOP political and financial establishment.

In the last decade, the national Republican Party, for all its rhetoric, has delivered little to these voters in actual moral or religious legislation. This hasn't mattered much, however, partly because of President Bill Clinton's negative symbolism, but also because the big wheels of the religious right used their brokerage role to keep 10 million to 20 million believers convinced that their dollars, activism and votes would stop abortion, produce pro-family legislation and enact a constitutional amendment allowing school prayer.

In turn, the political contributions, soft money and independent expenditures put out by the religious right helped elect many conservative GOP officeholders who support the sort of upper-bracket economics usually suspect in the Bible Belt. They, in turn, give at least lip service to the religious causes, even if their real loyalty is to the checkbook elite.

President Ronald Reagan was so popular with the fundamentalists that he didn't need their power brokers come election time. But that changed under George Bush, who did not have a conservative ideological core. The religious right didn't trust him, so he had to pander to it. For example, as president, Bush appointed his political aide, Lee Atwater of South Carolina, as Republican national chairman. Atwater courted the big preachers, as well as the big donors. This is how South Carolina, a fundamentalist stronghold, saw its early primary became a "firewall"--first for George Bush and then for his son.

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