Bush must fight for right

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 be thinking something quite different.

From 1985-87, my responsibility was to develop conservative support for Vice President Bush by recruiting individuals and creating opportunities where Mr. Bush could showcase his conservative credentials. I support Mr. Bush again. But ignoring the threat is akin to “know-nothingism” and those who are running Mr. Bush’s campaign had better come to terms with the facts, quickly.

First, many in the Bush camp are spinning the notion that Mr. Buchanan is another John Ashbrook. And like Mr. Ashbrook against Richard Nixon in 1972, Mr. Buchanan will go nowhere against Mr. Bush. This is a wholly wrong analogy and, for Mr. Bush, dangerous on its face by unnecessarily downplaying Mr. Buchanan’s chances. If Mr. Buchanan exceeds low expectations, he will have done “better than expected.” In the game of politics, expectations, though not everything, are nonetheless important. Perceptions drive money, volunteers and how the media reports on your campaign.

But more to the point, the analogy is incorrect because Mr. Ashbrook was a relatively unknown congressman from central Ohio. Mr. Buchanan, on the other hand, has had years of exposure to the voting public, especially Republican primary voters.

Further, Mr. Nixon had a longstanding relationship with the Republican right going back to his personal campaign against Alger Hiss. Mr. Nixon was chosen for vice president in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower precisely because Eisenhower recognized that he needed to reach out to conservatives.

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

Second, the analogy lacks credibility in terms of the power and capabilities of the state parties. In 1972, GOP state parties, by and large, were active, vital organizations that could muster support for Richard Nixon.

Today, most state parties are ineffectual and frequently in debt, which affects their ability to turn out volunteers and voters.

Third, in 1972, there was no Federal Election Commission imposing state-by-state limits on what a presidential campaign could spend. Richard Nixon could spend whatever he needed to “blow away” John Ashbrook. Now, everybody must operate under the same limits if they choose to accept matching funds from the FEC presidential fund.

Yet most people in politics know money is not everything. One must offer a compelling reason to be for or against a candidate running for office. As the November elections proved, Harris Wofford could be outspent by Richard Thornburgh by $2 million in Pennsylvania and still win. Why? Because ideas and issues matter.

In New Jersey, GOP candidates for the state legislature were outspent, collectively, by $2 million dollars by their Democratic counterparts. And yet the legislature went from being Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican. Why? Because the Republicans opposed the massive tax increase engineered by Democratic Gov. Jim Florio. They communicated to the voters that, they, the Republicans, were against higher taxes and that the Democrats were for higher taxes.

Politics is not a science. It is an art form. Yet in politics B follows A and, in fact, is usually caused by A. Thus if Mr. Bush is to squelch the Buchanan challenge, he must first recognize the serious nature of the challenge and then come up with ideas and issues to deal with it.

For example, Mr. Bush says he supports the line-item veto but wants a constitutional test. Unfortunately, the only person who can initiate a constitutional test is George Bush himself. Mr. Bush should identify just one item in the federal budget and strike it out. My favorite example is one from two years ago when there was a grant to study the average length of a stewardess’ nose.

Mr. Bush should simply strike out the most offensive item and ask the Supreme Court to rule. The Democrats, predictably, will attack the president, thus appear to be defending wasteful spending of the taxpayers money. If the court rules against Mr. Bush, he’s still won politically by appearing to fight for the American taxpayer. If the court rules that, indeed, a president does have the right to veto spending programs, he wins on a policy level and political level. What does this have to do with Pat Buchanan? Nothing. That is precisely the point. Mr. Buchanan is reduced to just another cheerleader for Mr. Bush.

Additionally, Mr. Bush should come to terms with the 1990 Budget Agreement. Rather than defend it, he should simply say he was wrong, that he’s sorry and it will never happen again. The American people and especially GOP primary voters not only want to hear this, they need to.

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 they wouldn’t raise taxes and then either did so or appeared to do so. Maggie Thatcher, Kay Orr, Jim Blanchard, Bob Martinez and others were driven from office because they opened up character questions about themselves by altering their position on taxes. It’s better for Mr. Bush to deal with it now and frame the terms of the debate rather than allow Mr. Buchanan and then his Democratic opponent to deal with the issue as they would like.

As for the “vision thing,” the single unique quality of America and our culture is that we believe in the future, that we can make a better life for our children, that we can solve our problems and that there is nothing we should either fear or fail to confront.

Ronald Reagan’s greatest contribution to America, as president, was revitalizing our hope for the future. We lost it under Mr. Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The American people do not want to hear that their president cannot lead them to solve the problems of our nation. They want him (or, in the future, her) to speak of, “the shining city on a hill.”

Other issues are “on the table” to take advantage of, including isolationism and Mr. Buchanan’s opposition to stopping Saddam Hussein. Specifically, what would the cost of home heating oil be in New Hampshire today if Mr. Bush had not moved against Saddam before Iraq occupied Saudi Arabia? Does Mr. Buchanan’s protectionism extend to oil imports that New Hampshire depends on?

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

Craig Shirley, a Washington political consultant, worked for George Bush from 1985 to 1987, organizing conservative backing for his 1988 campaign. Mr. Shirley supports Mr. Bush for re-election.


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