Talk to historically minded Republicans these days and two names keep coming up -- Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt. The battle for the Republican presidential nomination is a fight over their legacies.
Gov. George W. Bush is fighting millionaire Steve Forbes over whether the Reagan legacy is still relevant to the year 2000. Bush is battling Sen. John McCain over who is the true heir to TR.
Elizabeth Dole said she dropped out of the race because she lacked the money to compete with Bush and Forbes. That's true. But her campaign also failed because she never made herself central to the battle for the future of the Republican Party. She never chose which of the two fights to engage.
Pat Buchanan, who proudly championed his "peasant army" over the "Beltway elites" yesterday, always likes to pick fights. But fierce attacks on free trade, immigration and foreign entanglements that have made him a hero to a remnant of Reagan Democrats have a limited appeal to Reagan Republicans. His fight is not for Reagan's legacy but for Ross Perot's, a fact he acknowledged by switching parties and nomination battles.
Forbes is campaigning as Reagan's stand-in. He passionately advocates supply-side economics and attacks any sign that Bush thinks federal government can do good. He has become increasingly conservative on cultural issues.
Bush is more conservative than he likes to look. But his core message is that Reagan is so 1980s and something new is needed now. Bush is casting himself, if you'll pardon the phrase, as the Republican bridge to the 21st century.
Doesn't Reagan come to mind when you hear Bush criticizing "the destructive mind-set" that holds "that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved?"
The retro Forbes is gradually uniting those movement conservatives who think defending the Reagan legacy matters more even than winning the election. As Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio sees it, Forbes is winning the "conservative primary." He's dispatched Dan Quayle and Buchanan, facing social issues activist Gary Bauer as his only competitor for the right. No wonder Forbes backers seem so ready to say terrible things about Bauer.
Bush's pro-government talk is in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition, and that's the other battle Republicans confront. If you see the federal government as a potential force for good -- and, in the conservative writer David Brooks's phrase, for "national greatness" -- you're walking in TR's shoes.
McCain is bidding to be the purer Roosevelt legatee as a passionate advocate of reforming the political system, a Teddy Roosevelt refrain. Interestingly, as Brooks has pointed out, both Bush and McCain regularly attack political cynicism. They regularly emphasize the possibility of a common good. Even if you dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, it's a sharp break with Republican appeals of the past two decades.
Elizabeth Dole missed the chance to jump into either of these debates, perhaps because her broad strength at the beginning of the campaign led her to hope she wouldn't have to. "When you're a celebrity, often the best day is the day you get in," Fabrizio says.
Dole had reason to expect that at least some parts of the Republican establishment would end up with her. But she got trampled in the stampede to Bush. Whatever message she might have developed got muffled in what Fabrizio calls "the politics of politics," which looks not at issues but at why a candidate keeps dropping in the polls and falling behind in fund-raising. Fabrizio pointed to a series of serious speeches Dole gave -- on drugs, education and foreign policy that got limited attention. "When you're going backwards, it's always about the politics of politics," Fabrizio says, in what is also an apt description of Vice President Al Gore's recent troubles.
The two-dimensional character of the Republican fight -- Bush vs. Forbes and Bush vs. McCain -- creates fascinating possibilities for those who love game theory. Everyone, for example, wants to know whom Forbes will attack with the millions he can pour into commercials.
"If he points his guns at McCain, we'd be in trouble," says Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican who backs McCain. "If he points his guns at Bush, we'd benefit. Forbes is the spoiler at the birthday party. He may take himself out, but he has the capacity to take someone else out, too." Fabrizio thinks Forbes could establish his conservative credentials by going after McCain first -- or by attacking Bush and McCain simultaneously. That would be a straight fight between the Reagan and Roosevelt traditions.
Bush's advantage up to now has been his capacity to offer a bit of everything to everybody. "Bush is what people's imaginations want him to be," says Sanford. But the coming battle over two serious traditions will make it increasingly difficult to leave anything to the imagination.