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The Rebellion Has Just Begun

By William Kristol

Monday, February 21, 2000; Page A27

"Republicans are the stupid party, and South Carolina Republicans are the stupidest Republicans." Thus an impolitic McCain supporter on Saturday night (though not so impolitic as not to insist on anonymity).

Far more than most primary fights, the Bush-McCain contest has become a battle over the future of their party. Is the Republican Party in good shape, having made great gains over the past two decades, needing only younger and more personable leaders? Is the conservative movement basically sound, ready to govern once again, needing only to get back into power through an alliance with a conventional center-right politician willing to bend the knee to key movement leaders on key conservative issues?

If you answer yes to these questions, then you're "comfortable" with George W. Bush.

If, on the other hand, you believe the GOP has fundamental problems--if you think the conservative movement in many ways has become an obstacle to achieving conservative goals--if you laugh rather than recoil at the comment of my disappointed friend on Saturday night--then you're likely to have rallied to John McCain.

If you look back on the last quarter-century, in which a Bush or a Dole has been on every Republican ticket, and you think, "What would be more logical in 2000 than a Bush-Dole ticket?" then you are a Bush supporter. If you shudder in horror at the thought, then you are for McCain.

The gulf between Bush and McCain is not truly ideological. Both candidates are moderate conservatives. Of course, to the degree that the Bush campaign can succeed in "defining" the race as an ideological one, as it did in South Carolina, Bush will tend to win. Conservatives beat moderates in Republican primaries.

But both the Bush and McCain camps are full of conservatives and moderates. Among the conservatives, the difference--between Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer, between South Carolinians Carroll Campbell and Lindsey Graham, between former Reaganites Haley Barbour and Vin Weber, between Heritage Foundation denizens Ed Feulner and Marshall Wittmann--is not ideological. One might say that the difference is "only" temperamental--but the gulf in temperament points to a difference deeper than the details of policy or program.

For example, when a Bush adviser says to the Dallas Morning News, "If you are the establishment choice on the Republican side, you are inevitably the nominee--no ifs, ands or buts about it," Ralph Reed nods his head and works to ensure a seat for religious conservatives at the establishment table. Gary Bauer reads this quotation and looks around for a rebellion to join.

Former governor Carroll Campbell sees his two decades of party building going down the drain in South Carolina, and urges Republican voters to beat back an onslaught of outsiders into their primary. Lindsey Graham welcomes the newcomers as necessary to reinvigorate a tired and faltering South Carolina GOP that, as he puts it, has been "following a script that doesn't apply anymore."

What Bush and McCain supporters do agree upon, of course, is the importance of beating Al Gore. Bush supporters count on his superior political skills compared with his father in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996. McCain supporters point to the polls showing that, as the country has gotten to know George W. Bush, voters see him more and more as the successor to Bush '92 and Dole '96. A Pew Research Center survey last week showed Bush's 25-point lead of two months ago over Gore shrinking to one point, while McCain now beats Gore by eight.

The Washington Post may be right that McCain "is unlikely to win the Republican nomination running against the Republican Party." McCain supporters would say, however, that only by distinguishing oneself from the Bush-Dole-Gingrich Republican Party can the GOP win in November.

The voters of New Hampshire--a cranky, independent, anti-establishment lot--went for McCain over Bush by 19 points. The voters of South Carolina--a cranky, traditionalist, more conservative bunch--went for Bush by 11. Michigan--a state more representative of the rest of the nation than either New Hampshire or South Carolina--gets to break the tie and, most likely, to choose the nominee.

If Bush prevails, the rebellious impulse embodied by the McCain campaign will reemerge after a Bush general election defeat, or for that matter, during a Bush presidency, if he were to win. If McCain is the nominee, he will have to give shape to the inchoate movement he finds himself leading, and content to the embryonic message he is grappling to articulate. In either case, the battle for the GOP nomination may effectively be resolved tomorrow. The struggle over the Republican future has just begun.

The writer is editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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