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  •   The Republicans' Perpetual Candidates. . .

    By Richard Cohen

    Tuesday, March 10, 1998; Page A17

    opinion
    My colleague David Broder, who has the stomach for such things, attended the Southern Republican Leadership Conference recently and came away distinctly unimpressed with the current crop of GOP presidential aspirants. Maybe because I did not attend this conference and, in particular, subject myself to the speeches, I am – unlike Broder – in absolute awe of these presidential candidates. These guys can run on empty.

    Take (as Henny Youngman used to say about his wife) Lamar Alexander – please. There he was, most definitely listed by Broder as attending the Biloxi, Miss., meetings and, it seems, once again a presidential candidate. My question is a simple one: Why? Where in this vast land are the thousands, even dozens, of people clamoring for yet another Alexander presidential campaign?

    The last one, you will recall, advanced the proposition that anyone who wore a plaid shirt was, somehow, closer to the people. Never mind that in Alexander's case he was a millionaire who amassed his fortune largely through his political connections (he was governor of Tennessee) and whose message amounted to a broadside against all things Washington, including a suggestion that Congress shorten its session and simply go home. Alexander was called many things, but thoughtful was not one of them.

    Now, though, he is at it again, and I give him pride of place in this little essay because his candidacy says something about this fair land and its politics. I could just as easily mention some of the other candidates – Jack Kemp or Steve Forbes, for instance. They, too, are once again considering whether to satisfy the cravings of almost nobody that they seek the highest office in the land. We may add to this list Pat Buchanan and Dan Quayle.

    What's remarkable about these men is that they have somehow settled into a permanent presidential candidacy. Quayle was once the vice president of the United States, no big deal actually, and before that a senator from Indiana. In neither office did he make much of a mark – we have to be honest here – and since then has not been elected to anything. If the job of a politician is – at least on occasion – to actually hold a political office, Quayle can be said to be unemployed. Get the man a job.

    The same is true of Alexander and Kemp. Alexander, though, is distinguished by having lost the last time around – not well, mind you, but solidly. By March 6, 1996, the day he dropped out of the race, he had been beaten in 14 primaries. Forbes at least had won one (Arizona), as had Buchanan, who, you will recall, triumphed in New Hampshire.

    We are all taught to admire perseverance (if at first . . . ) and indomitability. But enough is enough. Forbes can say he has an idea (the flat tax) and Buchanan does have a constituency, but neither has been enough to win. What's more, neither man has ever held an elected office or, if you will, high military rank. That much could be said for most of the rest of the putative field, Elizabeth Dole included.

    Once, a presidential candidate represented a constituency. No more, if constituency means a broad swath of the electorate. Now, there are so many primaries and so fragmented an electorate that the race is not to the politically swift but to the guy who keeps showing up. Jimmy Carter proved that in 1976. Up to his presidential candidacy, only four people outside of Georgia had ever heard of him. I looked that up.

    For Carter, this lack of a real constituency proved disastrous. But at least his presidential campaign followed his tenure as governor. Not so the current crop. If, as Broder wrote, their speeches sound stale and irrelevant, could it be because they are drawing on outdated experiences? They ought to try holding public office. Maybe then they'll sound more convincing when they talk about the public.

    The list of the self-anointed is long and growing. (Have I mentioned Alan Keyes and, really, do I have to?) It's not that these are bad men. Alexander can be thoughtful, and Kemp is a grand guy with a distinctly non-Republican concern for the underprivileged. Quayle, too, has good qualities and he makes a nice appearance. But what distinguishes this group – and others I fear are hearing The Voice – is, alas, almost nothing but their ambition and, it seems, a determination to avoid any office but the presidency.

    Their reach exceeds my gasp.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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