Right about now, Republican convention-goers from Augusta to Anaheim should be a giddy bunch. Time to pack up the old kit bag and dust off that goofy hat. Time to pin on the convention medals that make GOP delegates resemble nothing so much as preening Third World colonels.
But as the party's Aug. 17-20 convention in Houston draws near, something is clearly amiss. When Republicans are fired up, their voices can be heard baying for liberal prey clear across the land. Yet as the party faithful prepare to reanoint George Bush in his adoptive hometown of Houston, the chants of "Four more years" are muted. Instead, there's growing anxiety over the GOP's ability to hang on to the White House--indeed, over the very soul of the Grand Old Party itself.
Inside the Republican "big tent," it's not a pretty picture. New Right activists are battling paleo-conservatives. Tax-cutters are jabbing fingers at budget-balancers. Prochoice GOP women are barely on speaking terms with their anti-abortion counterparts. And party theorists admit that despite heated debate, Republicans have failed to come up with a post-cold-war agenda--or an economic strategy that rises above Reaganism and Bush's drifting incrementalism.
Is this any way to kick off a convention? Hardly. But then, Houston won't be your typical fun-in-the-sun revel. The woes go beyond Bush's dismal poll standings or the belief among his staunch supporters in the business community that his economic policies have flopped.
`UNIQUE CONTRIBUTION.' There's also concern that the coalition of diehard conservatives, suburban independents, and blue-collar workers that carried Republicans to the White House in five out of the past six Presidential contests is unraveling. "Normally, party dominance in Presidential elections runs in cycles of 28 to 36 years," says analyst Kevin Phillips, who believes revulsion against Republican economic excesses is tilting the balance of power. "George Bush's unique contribution will be to accelerate that timetable," he says. "The fact that Bush had to face the likes of David Duke and Ross Perot is only a symptom of a broader decline in the coalition."
Many Republicans dispute this notion. Says Alan Heslop, a political scientist at California's Claremont McKenna College: "Fascinating as Phillips' demographic theories are, Bush's major problems are a rotten economy and the fact that in Clinton, he is facing the best, most silver-tongued challenger Democrats have put up in a long time." Despite such disclaimers, signs of deeper trouble abound. Among them:
-- Rebellion in the ranks. Typically, Democratic conventions are New Age festivals where the party's eccentric factions strut in full plumage. By contrast, GOP conclaves are displays of robotic harmony. Not this time. While the Democrats' New York pageant went off with the precision of a Rockettes matinee, guess how Republicans are spending the days leading up to their Houston hoedown? They're battling over abortion. They're buzzing over a renegade movement to dump Vice-President Dan Quayle and fresh press accounts of Bush's alleged extramarital affair. And they're watching Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp's latest feverish attempt to persuade Bush to ditch both his balanced-budget amendment and his stand-pat economic team in favor of a dramatic new round of tax-cutting. "Tax simplification, expanding the economy, energizing the inner cities--that's the kind of audacious agenda the President needs," declares Kemp. "Negative attacks on Clinton won't do the trick."
-- Bush Agonistes. Propelled by an upbeat message of change, Clinton holds a wide, if not necessarily deep, 20-point lead over Bush. Even with a boffo Houston show, White House strategists fear the President could still be staring at a 10-point gap after Labor Day. "To win, we'll have to stage one of the most remarkable political comebacks in history," concedes one Presidential adviser.
-- The econo-swamp. After four years of anemic growth, the buoyant economy Bush needs to float past the Democrats just isn't materializing. July unemployment declined a tick, to 7.7%, but 10 million Americans are out of work, consumer confidence has plunged, and the jobless rate in California and key industrial states is well above the national average. In the Golden State, source of 54 electoral votes and birthplace of the Reagan Revolution, the picture is especially grim. With his IOUs bouncing all over California, Governor Pete Wilson has found it necessary to skip the convention. As a measure of just how grim White House aides consider the economic climate, consider thisbit of gallows humor from one of Bush's top advisers: "What's the differencebetween Jimmy Carter and GeorgeBush? Carter had more housing starts."
-- The agenda gap. Just days before an Aug. 20 acceptance speech that will be a pivotal moment in his quest for survival, no one in the GOP ranks has a clue as to what Bush will say when he finishes scourging "a certain governor of a small state" and tries to outline a compelling second-term agenda.
White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner has launched a sweeping domestic policy review aimed at filling in the blanks. And the Administration is humming with talk of expanding Bush's health plan and maybe stitching together a new job-training initiative. But after other such exercises, including the one that produced Bush's underwhelming January State of the Union address, the letdown has been enormous. "Millions of Americans are looking for a reason to vote for George Bush," says Michael K. Deaver, deputy chief of staff in the Reagan Administration. "He has given them no cause to do that. Now, 'It's Morning Again in America' with Clinton."
-- Backlash blues. For weeks, Republican pollsters have watched in alarm as signs grew of a possible backlash against GOP congressional candidates. When voters are asked how they intend to cast their congressional ballots in the fall, says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, "we're seeing Democrats open a double-digit lead." Bush is calling on voters to end gridlock in Washington by giving the Republicans control of Congress. But pollsters say this attempt to nationalize the election may misread the mood of angry voters, who are taking aim at allincumbents--and could reserve special ire for Republicans if the election becomes a referendum on Bush's economic stewardship.
Many of these problems are short-term, and GOP political operatives agree that few are insurmountable--especially with Secretary of State James A. Baker III riding to the Bush campaign's rescue with six-guns blazing. More troubling to Republicans in the long term is evidence that under Bush's tenure, the alliance of economic conservatives, social conservatives, suburban independents, and Reagan Democrats has fractured.
Economic conservatives, though they may yet drift back, consider Bush's perfidy on his "Read my lips" tax pledge an act of surpassing treason. "Bush has just thrown these people away," fumes Adam Meyerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's quarterly Policy Review. "Conservatives feel his economic policies have been so disastrous, Clinton couldn't be much worse." Adds Burton Yale Pines, chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research: "Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Reagan did not get people inspired with economic laundry lists. They did it with promises to 'Get the country moving again.' Bush's campaign credo seems to be: 'Prudent change--but not
too fast.' "
Social conservatives, notably the religious right and anti-abortion forces, are still in the Republican corner, thanks to Bush's odes to "family values" and his opposition to abortion. But that very allegiance is driving a wedge through GOP ranks, as alarm over the Supreme Court's narrowing of Roe v. Wade propels suburban GOP women to prochoice Democrats. "This is a very serious matter for the Republican Party," says Rutgers University political scientist Ruth B. Mandel. "It now has the option of seeing prochoice Republican women stay home on Election Day, cross over and vote for Democrats, or maybe vote for Bush."
Beginning in 1968 and throughout the Republicans' long ascent to Presidential power, the support of ethnic, blue-collar Democrats has been essential to victory. GOP resistance to taxes, plus appeals to patriotism and the skillful exploitation of racial tension, usually succeeded in keeping these nominal Democrats in the GOP column. But after four years of having to swallow Dr. Bush's less-than-amazing economic elixir, some of these Reagan Democrats are ready to bolt. "They're much more ready to be Democrats this year than Reaganites," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart.
THREATENED PENSIONS. Moreover, "look inside some of these older suburbs, and you'll find 55-year-old men who thought America was on top of the world when they were in the service," says Phillips. "Now, they wonder whether their jobs or pensions are going to be there. Bush has done squat for them, which is why they drifted to Perot and are now with Clinton."
There are more discouraging portents for the GOP. The bloc of under-30 voters, once a mainstay of Reagan's support, has left Bush City in search of the over-the-horizon glow of Clinton-Gore Camelot (charts, page 25). Dan Quayle's claim to be a generational lure for these younger voters now seems, like so much else about his selection, to be laughable. And while the Vice-President struggles to rally fractious GOP conservatives, an unruly crop of party rivals, among them Kemp, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan, and former Bush drug czar William J. Bennett, are already looking past Quayle in preparation for a bruising Presidential slugfest in 1996.
None of those fault lines will be readily apparent when the hordes inside the Astrodome start chanting their huzzahs. But look beyond the bombast, and you may conclude that Houston looms less as celebration than an elegiac gathering of some lost and angry tribe.
To understand why, consider these musings from Lyn Nofziger, a diehard Reagan loyalist: "Bush is in serious danger of losing this thing. I'm not sure this is all bad. Parties get tired. They can stay in the White House too long. After a while, they just govern. It can take a defeat to remind them of what they stand for. So if we don't lose this time, we'll lose next time. Because we're old. We're old, and we're tired."