John Sears, the campaign manager for Ronald Reagan's successful run for the White House, is the closest thing we have to a political guru these days. A Yoda who trains Jedi knights. I called Sears the other day and asked him what he thought about 2000, and he professed not to be paying attention. He is in semi-retirement, living in Washington, trying to decide whether to retire to Florida or New Hampshire, or both. There are several things Sears has taught me during the last 25 years since I first met him as he was planning Reagan's 1976 campaign, which came within a whisker of taking the GOP nomination from President Ford. One is that the American people do not begin to take a serious interest in a presidential campaign until Labor Day of the year before the election. Almost everything that happens prior to that point is relatively useless in determining who will win in the following year. The people, he says, know they have a civic responsibility to prepare themselves for their personal political choices, but that it need not occupy them so early. This is true today as well, he says. The polls showing Texas Governor George W. Bush running away with the nomination and easily defeating Vice President Al Gore, who supposedly is running away with the Democratic nomination, reflect an electorate that has not as yet engaged itself.
Sears also taught me that while many may run for the presidency, not many really want to win, and many are in fact afraid of winning -- afraid they will fail. Reagan never had a fear of winning. He was confident that he knew the few things that had to be done to move the country and the world on a better path to its goals of peace and prosperity. Sears never believed Bob Dole wanted to win the presidency, but was content to win the GOP nomination in 1996, an honor that had long eluded him. When Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo announced he would not seek the Democratic nomination, when the Democratic party seemed ready to hand it to him, he made it clear to me that he did not believe he was up to the job and would not be good at it. In 1995, when I urged Steve Forbes to enter the campaign for the GOP nomination, he met with Sears who told him how he could succeed and what he would have to do to succeed. When Forbes chose a team that had no experience in national politics and did not include Sears, I sensed that Forbes was not running to win, but to make a name for himself out of the shadow of his late famous father. In this race, Pat Buchanan does not want the nomination, I think, because in every masterful political appearance he makes, he says something so outrageous that it almost begs all but a minority of faithful to stay away. The clearest example of a contender who had no intention of winning was former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, who showed up in New Hampshire with his camera, taking snapshots for his scrapbook. He was a presidential tourist.
It is for this reason that I believe the Bush Bandwagon will not get where it aims to go. Everyone and his brother in the GOP organization has endorsed "W," as he is called, for the narrow reason that they want the political power of the Oval Office joined to a GOP Congress. On CNBC's "Hardball" last night, Chris Matthews asked former Vice President Dan Quayle what single question he would put to W if he were sitting opposite him on the show. Without hesitation, Quayle said he would ask him why he is seeking the nomination. Is it because he is ahead in the polls? Because he has a flock of endorsements? Because he wants to follow in his father's footsteps? None of these reasons is good enough for the electorate if there is someone in the race who has better reasons. There really has to be a vision of what job needs to be done and a rough idea of how to do it. Of all the candidates in the field, the only two who have this degree of confidence are Quayle himself and Democrat Bill Bradley, thus far Gore's only challenger. Both men came back to the political scene after a temporary retirement from politics, which in itself tells us they are serious about winning. I certainly don't believe Gore, deep down, really wants to be President, as he is worried he is not up to the job. The way President Clinton is interfering in the process also suggests he knows his vice president better than most of us do, and that he knows Gore is not up to the job. Gore thinks like a lawyer, not an ordinary fellow who connects with ordinary people. Bradley is far more the common man, who identifies the big issues as the racial divide, foreign policy, and taxes. He has raised $11 million in his stealth campaign and some serious Democrats now are predicting he will win.
Quayle is the most serious about getting to the Oval Office, not because he has nothing better to do, but because he is a true Reaganaut, chosen for the Bush ticket in 1988 because he came from the growth wing of the party. He was a young man who easily won his races for the House and Senate against popular Democrats in Indiana by running on Reaganesque growth themes and campaigning in the black community and in union halls. He has the stereotype of a spoiled rich kid who plays golf when he is not misspelling "potato," but his father, who made his money publishing newspapers, was middle-class in outlook and "hung out," says Quayle, not with his fellow publishers, but in the beerhalls with the reporters and backshop printers. To get into this race knowing he would face a torrent of jokes and ridicule is palpable evidence that he is either naive or supremely confident of what he has to offer and secure in his own skin, as Reagan was when faced with similar jibes.
It has been assumed that the race would come down to Bush versus Forbes, because of Forbes's deep pockets. But Forbes just threw away a bundle on early tv spots, on the idea that he could begin cutting into the Bush lead in the polls. All that's happened is that he stayed at 4% while Quayle, who spent nothing, climbed to 9% from 6%, almost certainly because of his free tv appearances and his reasoned opposition to the bombing campaign in Kosovo. Forbes will spend another $37 million, but only if the next several million get him into serious contention, which I seriously doubt will happen. He still has time to throw in with Quayle and run for New Jersey governor in 2001, which is a race he could win after eight disappointing years from Christie Whitman.
I've not yet personally committed myself to Quayle, but since he called me in February when he sensed Jack Kemp would not be running, I've been helping him as much as he has asked for help. He e-mails questions and comments several times a week as we get to know our areas of agreement and disagreement. My wife and I finally decided he was worth a campaign contribution from each of us. He knows a great deal about the way the world works, and where there are weaknesses, they are in areas where personnel matters most. He has publicly said he would ask Kemp to be his Treasury Secretary and Colin Powell his Secretary of State. Kemp has kept his distance, but clearly sees eye-to-eye with Quayle on most issues. Their wives are friends, they both have condos in Vail, and Kemp has agreed to do a small fundraiser for him in Vail. More to the point, Kemp recently told a Washington Post reporter that he would have a difficult time supporting any candidate who supported the bombing campaign in Kosovo. That cuts out Bush, Forbes, Dole, McCain and Hatch.
Sears believes Quayle's strongest suit is foreign policy, where Bush is being taught on the run by the hardliners who are advising him. There would be a clear division on both foreign and domestic policy. Quayle has become kinder and gentler on foreign policy, stressing diplomacy over force, while Bush says he would have fought the Serbs more "ferociously" than Clinton. On domestic policy, Bush is the kinder and gentler, the "compassionate conservative" who does not want to leave anyone behind, while Quayle thinks a rising tide should lift all boats, that government should not help those who can help themselves and should leave the lazy behind on their duffs.