COLUMN RIGHT/ CRAIG SHIRLEY;GIVE BUCHANAN AND THE RIGHT THEIR DUE; IF BUSH IS TO SQUELCH THE CHALLENGE, HE MUST FIRST RECOGNIZE ITS SERIOUSNESS AS A THREAT.

While Bush Administration officials and the members of the Republican Establishment downplay the chances of Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire and beyond, GOP primary voters may feel something quite different.

Many in the Bush camp are likening Buchanan to John Ashbrook, saying that, like Ashbrook against Richard Nixon in 1972, Buchanan will go nowhere against Bush. This analogy is wrong and dangerous for Bush because it downplays Buchanan’s chances. If Buchanan exceeds low expectations, he will have done “better than expected.” In politics, perception is reality. Perceptions drive money, volunteers and the type of media your campaign gets.

But more to the point, the analogy is incorrect because Ashbrook was a relatively unknown Ohio congressman. Buchanan has tremendous visibility and recognition among voters.

Furthermore, Nixon had a longstanding relationship with the Republican right, going back to his personal campaign against Alger Hiss. Nixon was chosen as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate precisely because Ike recognized that he needed to reach out to conservatives.

In 1968, Nixon ran for President as a conservative. And though some conservatives felt betrayed by President Nixon and then by President Ronald Reagan, no conservative primary challenger to either stood a chance because both had longstanding relations with the GOP right. Bush quite simply does not possess the personal relationship with conservative voters that Nixon and Reagan did.

Second, the analogy lacks credibility in terms of the power and the capabilities of the state parties. In 1972, GOP state parties were active, vital organizations that could muster support for Nixon. Today, most state parties are relatively weak and frequently in debt, which affects their ability to turn out volunteers and voters.

Third, in 1972 there was no Federal Election Commission imposing limits on what presidential campaigns could spend. Nixon could spend whatever he needed to “blow away” Ashbrook. Now, everybody must operate under the same limits if they want matching funds from the FEC.

Yet most people in politics know that money is not everything. Voters must be motivated to vote. As the November elections proved, Harris Wofford could be outspent by Richard Thornburgh by $2 million in Pennsylvania’s Senate race and still win. Why? Because voters are motivated by issues. Where a candidate stands on the issues matters.

In New Jersey, GOP candidates for the state Legislature were outspent, collectively, by $2 million by their Democratic counterparts, and yet the Legislature went from being Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican. Republicans opposed the massive tax increase engineered by Democratic Gov. Jim Florio and effectively communicated to voters that the Democratic legislators supported higher taxes.

Thus, if Bush is to squelch the Buchanan challenge, he must first recognize its serious nature and then come up with winning ideas and issues.

In addition, Bush should come to terms with the 1990 budget agreement. Rather than defending it, he should admit that he was wrong, apologize and never let it happen again.

Campaign advisers will vehemently disagree with this, but consider the following: In recent memory, one cannot recall more elected executives going down to defeat precisely because they said that they wouldn’t raise taxes and then either did so or appeared to do so. Margaret Thatcher, Kay Orr, Jim Blanchard, Bob Martinez and others were driven from office because they opened up character questions about themselves; they altered their position on taxes or appeared to do so. It’s better for Bush to deal with it now and frame the terms of the debate.

As for the “vision thing,” the single unique quality of America and our culture is that we believe in the future. Reagan’s greatest contribution to America was revitalizing our hope for the future. But hope stems from opportunity and opportunity stems from economics, which means that Bush should embrace a real and meaningful tax cut now.

Bush will defeat Buchanan, but he should also recognize that Buchanan’s challenge is meaningful. Those same people who worked passionately for Reagan and then Bush are the very same people who are now taking a close look at Buchanan. Bush can keep the GOP right. But he first must recognize that it’s worth fighting for.

LANGUAGE: ENGLISH

TYPE: Opinion

Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times

 All Rights Reserved

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