Commentary: The Year Of Political Cross Dressing

They are Republicans, but they're talking Demo-speak. Pat Buchanan thunders that the Establishment has "sacrificed the economic security of American workers...for a corporate and financial elite that has no loyalty except to the bottom line." Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) chimes in with attacks on "corporate greed" and Wall Street. Meanwhile, President Clinton preempts GOP themes. He blasts "big government," endorses public-school uniforms, embraces a balanced budget, and defends global trade.

There's no need to adjust your TV set. This is campaign '96, the Year of Political Cross-Dressing. Stunned by Buchanan's ability to tap into Americans' economic anxiety, Republicans are shedding their pinstripes and trying to jam into workers' overalls. President Clinton and his New Democrats, for their part, are pursuing Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin's bond-market strategy: Any deviation from centrist, pro-market economic policies will spook Wall Street and drive up long-term interest rates. It's "an interesting inversion," says GOP political analyst Kevin P. Phillips. "Both parties are out of their element."

"FLUX." In the near term, the theme-swapping of '96 reflects a heated competition for key blocs of swing voters. Buchanan wants Reagan Democrats and Ross Perot voters, and Clinton is wooing suburban independents. In the long run, something more fundamental is occurring. Some 60 years after it was established, the Democrats' New Deal coalition has collapsed for good. Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to cope with an influx of Reagan Democrats and Christian fundamentalists. Within each party, ideologically opposed rivals are waging bitter battles for control. "There's a lot of flux and chaos," notes conservative thinker William Kristol. "A lot of pieces are floating around."

This turn of events vexes House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who reckoned the battle for the GOP Presidential nomination would revolve around the balanced budget, government downsizing, and regulatory relief--issues that helped the GOP capture Congress in '94. Instead, Buchanan has made the plight of America's workers the hot Republican theme. In a Feb. 23 memo to party officials, Gingrich conceded as much: "Economic anxiety is a reality, and we must be prepared to show that we recognize that reality," he wrote.

As Steve Forbes wages a campaign with a flat tax at its center, Buchanan laments wage stagnation, clucks over income inequality, and bashes Big Business. "Pat is really a New Deal Democrat for the 21st century," says Republican pollster Kellyann Fitzpatrick. Even Democrats admit that Buchanan is on to something when he pokes at the dark underbelly of statistical prosperity. Says James C. Carville, a Clinton political adviser: "Buchanan has just wiped the smug smiles off the faces of the Washington crowd. If we're seeing something like this in the Republican primaries with 5% unemployment, want to guess what the reaction would be in a recession with 8% unemployment?"

Democrats, meanwhile, are waging their own internal battle. New Democrats come down clearly on the side of respect for markets and business' job-creating potential. But wait, you say. Clinton supports a hike in the minimum wage, and he trots out Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich to assail "companies that are treating workers like disposable pieces of equipment." Such Reichian moves seem to be mere window dressing for the AFL-CIO. A minimum-wage boost is dead in the Republican-controlled Congress. And each time Reich proposes tax breaks for companies that retrain workers and avoid layoffs, Rubin drives a stake through the plan.

Some folks consider issues-swapping the height of cynicism. But in an era when party dogma is increasingly irrelevant, it could produce positive results. Clinton has shown that Democrats don't have to be knee-jerk business bashers. Now, Buchanan is forcing Dole and other lifelong GOP free-traders to emphasize "fair" trade.

Sure, it may be hard to match candidates and party labels without a scorecard. But as the Democrats and Republicans vie for the voters of the future, such ideological inversions will be less a rarity than the rule.

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