Well, it's finally over. The primaries are finished and the Republican Party that rose to power on the strength of its anti-government crusade has picked its most consummate government insider to bear the party's standard. Bob Dole wants to be president because....well, he thinks he deserves it.
Dole's positions on issues have changed over the years, but this time he will be against affirmative action, welfare (at least for poor people), raising the minimum wage, gay rights, and especially against abortion. What Dole really believes may become clear after a few more focus groups and perhaps a phone conversation with the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed.
But the advice of the Coalition may sometimes come into conflict with the advice of Dole's old political mentor, Richard Nixon, who said always run to the Right during primaries and then back to the center during the general election. If Dole does run to the center, he may have a real race to stop Bill Clinton from getting there first. It indeed could be a very boring presidential year. There has been only one interesting campaign during this primary season-Pat Buchanan's.
In the New Hampshire primary, Buchanan shocked the nation and his own Republican Party by putting together a winning coalition of religious conservatives and disaffected workers. He did so by injecting into the campaign the economic fears and insecurities that increasingly define the lives of many American families-issues that were scrupulously avoided by the other Republicans and the Democrats.
While party elites stayed silent about the economic direction of the country, Buchanan threw a bomb into the quiet, attacking the "big boys" who are doing in the "little guys." The dramatic growth in the gap between the nation's wealthy elites and America's middle class and poor is the most neglected political fact in the country today-and one of the most important. The American middle class is losing ground and hope for its children's future, and the poor are fighting for their very survival, while a small professional and business class reaps a whirlwind of unprecedented financial gain.
While the Republicans have honed the message of an angry political populism targeting "big government," they have loyally protected the interests of the Fortune 500. This is the party's potentially fatal inconsistency, its Achilles' heel. As more and more people become castoffs of the new economy, and fear and insecurity spread through the middle class, "anti-corporate" sentiment will continue to rise. To most people, it just doesn't seem fair that while productivity and corporate profits are going up, employees' wages and job security are going down.
BUT BUCHANAN'S RHETORIC is belligerent and inflammatory, often adding racial and ethnic communities to his blame list. Buchanan has become a tremendous embarrassment for the Republican Party because he has exposed the strategy that Republicans have followed for more than two decades-pursuing white voters by portraying the Democrats as "the party of civil rights." The problem with Buchanan is that he is too blunt. But the Republicans deserve him.
Even more embarrassing for the party is that Buchanan won a majority of Religious Right votes in the early primaries, often by a 2-to-1 margin. Buchanan's strong and often bombastic positions on abortion and gay rights certainly contributed to those wins, but the fact that the Christian Coalition's constituency is almost entirely white didn't hurt either.
During the early primaries, the leaders of the Religious Right were locked in a quandary. They had to decide whether to be faithful to their ideology and support Buchanan's candidacy, or to acknowledge his unelectability and take the more pragmatic route of supporting Dole, and then seek to exact concessions from the Republican nominee and platform. Christian Coalition director Reed clearly preferred the latter course. Other Religious Right leaders favored the more hard-line Buchanan route, but the pragmatists prevailed.
However, in the early Republican primaries and caucuses, the Coalition rank and file seemed to have faced no such dilemma. In all those contests, Buchanan walked away with the Religious Right prize-winning a clear majority of Christian Coalition voters. Even as Dole finally began to trounce his right-wing rival in later primaries (with exit polls showing that most voters believed the television commentator was "too extreme"), Buchanan still got the lion's share of Religious Right votes in states as diverse as Georgia and Massachusetts. During this time, Reed privately told Dole not to call Buchanan extreme.
What does it mean that Pat Buchanan emerged as the political champion of the Religious Right? In boasting of the influence he will still have on the Republican platform at the San Diego convention, Buchanan declared, "We've got God on our side." Shouldn't Reed be embarrassed, and shouldn't he say so?
The question must be asked, "Would Jesus have voted for Pat Buchanan?" or perhaps an even more telling one, "Would Pat Buchanan vote for Jesus?"
And does Ralph Reed think that's even relevant?