Commentary: Dole's Reluctant Rank And File

If the ideological conservatives who increasingly control the Republican Party at the grassroots had their way, Bob Dole's mellow '96 convention would have had a starkly different look. On the podium would have been a succession of hardline heroes: televangelist Pat Robertson, abortion foe Phyllis Schlafly, and populist crusader Pat Buchanan. Their topics: abortion, school prayer, and immigration curbs--hardly the issues the GOP nominee wants to run on.

Increasingly, Dole and running mate Jack Kemp are leaders without followers in their own party. By now, 15 to 20 state parties are controlled by the Religious Right. And their Republicanism is a far cry from the mainstream Big Business philosophy that spawned Dole--and from the pro-growth neoconservatism embodied by Kemp. "Dole has tried to manage a moderate message in a house full of conservatives," says Carleton College political scientist Steven E. Schier.

The party nominees support free trade and federal protections of civil rights, while much of the New Republican rank and file does not. Dole and Kemp give lip service to federal restrictions on abortion. For the Religious Right, an absolute federal ban is the highest priority. "It's the pro-life advocates who are the foot soldiers of this movement," says Calvin Ebner, a county GOP chair from Deweyville, Tex. "I think we're the future of the party."

UNCOMFORTABLE CEOs. Even when Dole and Kemp are in sync with the social conservatives on issues such as tax cuts, their goals and motives diverge. Dole and Kemp see the tax code primarily as an instrument to provide economic incentives, so their focus is on across-the-board rate cuts and reductions in capital-gains taxes. By contrast, the Religious Right regards the tax code as a means to influence social behavior. Their priority is tax breaks for adoption, families with children, and charitable giving.

While Dole and Kemp are both solid free-traders, many of the GOP delegates are economic nationalists in the populist image of Pat Buchanan. "It's not a radical trade policy. It's common sense," says Drew R. Ivers, Buchanan's Iowa state chairman. "Dole and Kemp will have to move toward that position." Similarly, the New Republicans favor strict curbs on immigration. That view contrasts sharply with the interests of many businesses--especially high tech--that rely on immigrant workers.

But the biggest difference between the GOP's Presidential ticket and party activists is on social issues. While both Dole and Kemp are anti-abortion, both candidates have long records as social moderates on other issues. Dole, for instance, is very proud of his support for civil-rights legislation of the '60s and his authorship of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Kemp has always seen himself as a spokesman for racial tolerance and social inclusion. That attitude plays well in Corporate America's boardrooms, where CEOs are uncomfortable with the Religious Right's agenda.

But tolerance doesn't sell with the New Republicans. TV viewers watching retired General Colin L. Powell heard only scattered boos when he told the convention that he supported abortion rights and affirmative action. What they didn't see were the hundreds of stone-faced delegates sitting on their hands as he preached his message of inclusion. And the party platform is absolute in its opposition to affirmative action, immigration, and abortion. Dole might downplay the document, but he will come under intense pressure, if elected, to adhere to it. Already, on Aug. 12, Kemp tried to appease the Right by backing away from his longstanding opposition to a California ballot initiative to repeal affirmative-action programs.

The attitude of many ultraconservatives toward Dole has been extraordinary: They are supremely indifferent to the results of the coming election. Instead, they're focused on state and local challenges and the Presidential race in 2000 and beyond. One indication of how completely the Religious Right dominates the GOP: Just days before the convention opened, aggressive anti-abortion candidates whipped mainstream rivals for GOP Senate nominations in Georgia, Michigan, and Dole's own Kansas.

These deeply committed, hard-working apparatchiks came to San Diego to consolidate control of their party. The real story of this convention is how far they've advanced. For now, they're stuck with Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, candidates they don't completely trust. But as they look to the next millennium, they are bent on remaking a Republican Party in their image. A party that Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, and Corporate America won't recognize as their own.

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