The political year of 1987 qualifies as The Real First Primary for 1988; there were winners and losers. Could I have the envelope, please?
Date of the Most Confusing Announcement of 1987: Dec. 15, when former Colorado senator and former presidential candidate Gary Hart became instead former Colorado senator and former former presidential candidate Gary Hart. If he can survive the inevitable taunts of the Johnny Carson monologues and other needles, Hart might have a chance to recreate his 1984 smash role as The Outsider.
Earlier this year, Hart was clearly unsuited as The Front-Runner. As he returns to New Hampshire, the scene of his great 1984 upset, he could just provide the party's eventual nominee with a big lift: if that Democratic nominee were to beat Hart in next February's New Hampshire primary, the victor then would have beaten Somebody (not a bunch of guys named Joe). But as political philosopher Mae West once observed, "He who hesitates is last."
Dumbest Republican Party Move of 1987: It had to be the dull-witted reaction to President Reagan's bold moves to make the GOP the majority party. What two major knocks have voters put on the Republican Party? That's right: 1) an obvious preferential tilt toward the Deserving Rich and 2) fears about the GOP's almost self-indulgent bellicosity internationally, especially toward the Soviets.
So what did Ronald Reagan do in his second term to help his party? First, over the outraged shrieks of the Loophole Lobby and the reflexive opposition of dumb Republicans, he pushes the Bradley-Gephardt fair tax plan into law as his own. Then, without the support of five of the six 1988 GOP presidential candidates, Reagan makes a deal with the Soviets to eliminate real nuclear weapons and, in the process, helps make the Republicans the party of peace. And where does the opposition come from? From politically antigrowth Republicans.
Dumbest Democratic Party Move of 1987: It had to be the decision by congressional Democrats to focus all public attention on the administration's secret arming of the contras in Nicaragua to the total exclusion of the administration's secret arming of the ayatollah in Iran. Four times as many Americans believed our selling arms to Iran was worse than using the proceeds from those sales to help the Nicaraguan rebels.
After a terrorists' truck brought violent death to 241 American warriors in their Lebanon barracks, the president issued a warning: "Let no terrorist question our will, no tyrant doubt our resolve." He promised that those responsible for the murder of our Marines would be pursued and punished.
Our people learned that $1 million to fund the terrorists had been moved from the government in Iran to its embassy in Beirut. Provided with a positive identification, the Reagan administration then sold arms to the terrorists. But with an unmatched instinct for the capillary, Democrats -- either because they were blinded by their ideology about Central America or because they were intimidated by organized Jewish political clout, which discouraged public scrutiny of arms sales to Iran -- ignored this devastating hypocrisy. They lost the advantage of branding the GOP as the "Tehran Republicans" and allowed them instead to become the "Ollie North Republicans."
Political Theory Confirmed in 1987: Peace through strength. Ronald Reagan had argued that only a rearmed America would bring a serious Soviet Union to the bargaining table. Those were the Soviets at the bargaining table.
Political Theory Unconfirmed in 1987: Generational politics. Remember how the baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were going to assert their generational imperative and transform our politics in 1988? The defunct campaign of Joe Biden remembers; traveling the generational divide was the route to the White House.
So who are the winter-book co-favorites for the Republican nomination? George Bush, age 63, and Bob Dole, age 64. And what two Democrats who weren't even in the race a year ago are now in double figures in most polls? Sen. Paul Simon, 59, and Gov. Michael Dukakis, 54, that's who. It could be that politically, generational uniqueness ends with a second mortgage.
Biggest Democratic Winner of 1987: The hands-down winner is party chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., to whom primary credit must be given for the fact that, heading into 1988, Democrats are more united than Republicans and have largely shed their negative image of being a loose confederation of special interests.
It took guts to abolish the special-pleader party caucuses. Finally, one Democratic leader dared to stand up to organized groups like Transvestites Against Both the Metric System and the MX Missile. Kirk abolished the party's midterm conference, which had been a source of publicized division, and eliminated straw polls, which drained resources and good will, from the 1988 presidential race. In an ironic tribute to Kirk's effectiveness, the Democratic Party is now more popular than its presidential candidates.
Most Confusing Political Move on a 1987 Issue: Sen. Bob Dole's indecisiveness on the INF Treaty. As his party's leader in the Senate, Bob Dole has been tough, effective and skillful. Not surprisingly, his campaign theme emphasizes his leadership. There are 12 presidential candidates; on the important issue of the INF Treaty, 11 of the 12 have taken a public position. Only Bob Dole, the candidate who emphasizes his leadership, has ducked the issue.
Nobody believes that Dole will eventually oppose the treaty, so the whole exercise could leave him looking a lot like the wobbling legislator who was once dismissed as "the kind of guy on a five-member subcommittee who gives you the fourth vote."