The Crowded Republican Field
Jude Wanniski
April 18, 1995


There are now nine Republicans who are more or less signed up for the 1996 horse race and almost certainly there will be others. There are four serious candidates, who think they can raise enough money to finance a winning campaign. They are Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Pete Wilson and Lamar Alexander. The others are statement candidates, who know it is unrealistic to think they can either raise the money or win the nomination. Their intent is to provide rallying points to various constituencies, to at least help shape the GOP message. They include Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Rep. Robert Dornan of California, Alan Keyes, and Pat Buchanan. Dropping hints from the sidelines are Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Colin Powell, who would appear to be running for vice president. To enhance his leverage in the party and in Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich privately keeps alive the possibility he might jump in.

The reason I continue to hope and believe that Malcolm (Steve) Forbes, Jr., will make the run is that none of the above is really in the political or intellectual lineage of Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who laid the foundation of the structure we should be building in preparation for the 21st century. Jack Kemp was a direct descendant and, in the next generation, so is Steve Forbes. Of the Republicans in the field thus far, Gramm and Dornan would claim blood ties to the Gipper. So might Wilson, whose political career in California at least paralleled Reagan’s. They are no closer than cousins, though, related, but not on a filial line. Dole and Buchanan are in-laws, related by Nixonian marriage. The conservative pool that has produced most of these political genes is a pessimistic one -- the kind that Democrats have always associated with balanced budgets and cutbacks in the school lunch program. Gingrich, a Kemp lieutenant in the earliest days of the Reagan revolution, is a true Reaganaut in the Forbes generation. My guess is that Newt would much prefer to stay where he is, the dominant force in the legislative branch, but that he would run for President if he did not see a Reaganaut in ascendance. 

The political chatter among the media these days is that “it is Dole’s race to lose,” and that if he does not make any mistakes from now on, he will be the nominee. Don’t buy it. The picture is of a frontrunner so far ahead that he only needs to put one foot ahead of the next. In fact, Dole is already getting tangled up in his own feet, looking over his shoulder. The political touts who are making book on 1996 have decided that Dole has to 1) pacify the Christian Coalition, 2) pass Newt’s Contract With America, 3) find another vote in the Senate to clear the Balanced Budget Amendment, 4) raise $25 million at 200 fundraisers, 5) look fresh as a daisy, and 6) not lose his temper. In addition, he has decided to remain as Majority Leader until it’s time to be anointed. All this requires him to tie his legs into elaborate pretzels, which demonstrates to the political universe that he is simply not cut out to be a chief executive. He is a national asset as a Majority Leader in the Senate, where he can add up 54 Senators, divide by 54, and find consensus. As a chief executive, this talent may instead produce numbing indecision. As Senate Leader he has been for and against assault weapons, depending on which way the winds were shifting. Now, in the same breath, he has to be for assault weapons and against violence on television and in the movies. As Senate Leader, he could say he will patiently await the hearings on the President’s controversial nominee for surgeon general, Henry Foster. Now, he will hang the fellow without a trial. A year ago, when asked for the first thing he would do as President, he told Meet the Press he would cut the capital gains tax. In February, with Kemp out of action and Gramm breathing down his neck, Dole was asked the same question on CNN and decided he would end affirmative action. 

It is fair to say that Dole’s ability to be the leader of his fellow Senators is largely due to the absence of an ideological anchor at his inner core. The kinds of legislators who have won their party’s presidential nominations have not been skilled at consensus building, but have been mavericks. John Kennedy was hardly a member of the Senate club, nor was George McGovern or Barry Goldwater. They each had distinct ideological gyroscopes that expressed direction. At the moment, Dole leads the field simply because the voters know he is seasoned, has character, and will not do much damage in the process of consulting other safe Republicans before he chooses direction. The country and the world would likely move in the right general direction with Dole in the White House, but at a glacial pace. It will probably become more evident as this race unfolds that the electorate is prepared to take greater risks with the right kind of leader in order to move the nation and the world at a livelier pace. It was no doubt painful for Dole to sign a no-tax-pledge last week, not because he wants to raise taxes, but because he knows that unlike Reagan or Kemp the political world will not trust him on this issue unless he ties his own hands. 

Sen. Phil Gramm is not a creature of consensus, but like Barry Goldwater, a true ideological maverick. Indeed, he bolted the Democratic Party, essentially in disagreement over its economic policies. Like Goldwater, though, Gramm’s ideology is in the austerity wing of the GOP, which puts spending cuts and small government at the top of the national agenda. Gramm appeals to the well-to-do white Republicans who read Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged back in college, which is why he will be able to easily raise $25 million at $1,000-a-plate. In terms of personality, though, Goldwater was warm and fuzzy compared to Gramm’s angry, uncompromising sharp edges. In early 1993, I watched him address a C-SPAN audience of conservatives, arguing against any tax cuts until the GOP controlled the White House in 1997. This, he said, would be to prevent President Clinton from getting credit for a stronger economy! In January, on MacNeil-Lehrer, he argued for education block grants by the federal government. With a straight face, he said this should be done on the grounds that in Texas, federal regulations require three times as much money be spent on the learning disabled than on gifted children! This is one tough cookie. His only chance of winning the White House would be if he balanced the ticket by naming Rep. Pat Shroeder [D-CO], the leftiest lady in Congress, as his running mate. 

Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and former Education Secretary in the Bush administration, has softer edges than either Dole or Gramm and more executive experience than the two combined. He appears to be running out of a sense of noblesse oblige, with a common touch acquired on a few campaign walks across his home state. His campaign message has not thus far been very inspiring, though, with the kind of packaged feel that comes from political consultants. He at least seems to know that the right answer to the puzzle posed by the electorate is one close to Reagan and Kemp, but his emulation is awkward, reminiscent of George Bush and Delaware’s Pete du Pont. He readily accepted an invitation last year to join Empower America, the public-service lobbying group that Kemp helped found with Ted Forstmann, and is currently chaired by Steve Forbes. There is no discernible world view from Alexander, whose credentials are domestic.

Then there is Pete Wilson, who has looked over this field and realizes how weak it is -- especially relative to the high probability that the GOP nomination is a ticket to the White House. If Kemp had not dropped out, Wilson would not now be running, as he had promised the people of California. He has won elections at every level of government and if he got the GOP nomination he could probably scrape together a win against the weak incumbent. Still, we don’t quite know why he thinks he’d make a better President than the others, the source of his drive. He still has plenty of time to figure that out. It will be September before the people begin to take a serious look at this crowded field, which by then will be bigger, at least by one.