Portrait of a professional in a slow season:
John Sears has his back to the window in the Hay-Adams Hotel dining room, the window keeping steamy August at bay. If he looks over his shoulder, across Lafayette Park, he can see, shimmering in the sunshine, the prize for which people like him play: the White House.
The current possessor of the prize is not home. He is on the other edge of the continent. Most presidents seize every opportunity to be elsewhere. Perhaps the striving is sweeter than the savoring.
Sears has gray hair but an unlined face, so his age is hard to guess. He has been a player in the game of presidential politics since (it sometimes seems) Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft started the liberal-conservative row that has raged off and on in the Republican Party. Sears is 45.
He was part of Richard Nixon's comeback in the campaigning for congressional candidates in 1966. He worked for Nixon in 1968. In 1976 he ran Ronald Reagan's nomination campaign that came close to unseating a president. Were it not for the falling-out with Reagan in 1980, Sears, who until then was managing Reagan's campaign, might today be looking at the Hay-Adams from the other side of the park.
But such are the fortunes of war, and there always is another war coming. Sears expects to enlist with a candidate before 1988, which he says is going to be fun. It will be the first election since 1968 with no incumbent run- ning. In 1968 Lyndon Johnson's decision to retire was not made until the primaries were under way. So the 1988 campaign will be the first since 1960 in which everyone knows from the start that both nominations are up for grabs.
In 1988 each party will have a fascinating task. Democrats will try to reverse, or compensate for, a 20-year loosening of their party's grasp on traditional constituencies. Republicans will try to attach permanently to their party many of the voters attracted twice by Reagan candidacies.
Sears seems to think Gary Hart was a brief flash in a small pan, but is impressed that in the Maine caucuses and elsewhere Hart revealed something important about the evolving electorate. Hart showed that it is becoming easier to expand the nominating electorate by attracting people (in Hart's case "loose Democrats" and independents) who hitherto have not participated.
The increasing elasticity of the nominating electorate is, Sears thinks, especially important to Republican politics because Republican participation is usually smaller than Democratic participation. Hence a smaller infusion of new activists can induce volatility. This gives a Republican dark horse -- even an indigo horse such as Pete Dupont, former governor of Delaware -- reason to be hopeful.
Sears thinks the supposed front-runner, George Bush, has less chance for the Republican nomination than Ted Kennedy has for the Democratic nomination. There must be reasons why no sitting vice president has been elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Sears thinks that one reason, especially important in today's process dominated by primaries, is that a vice president has trouble answering the important question -- "What would you do as president?" He either says "more of the same," which does not satisfy the American thirst for change, or he seems less than loyal to his president.
Sears thinks Jack Kemp has more passionate followers than Bush has. But Kemp seems so worried about being considered "a dumb jock" that he tries to tell everyone everything he knows. Actually, says Sears, people rather fancy a president who will pause to listen to them.
There are three publics that matter in the nomination scramble. There is the political and journalistic menagerie inside the Washington Beltway; there are the party activists; and then there are gobs of other people (a k a America). Kemp may not be as well-known among that third crowd as Bob Dole is. But Dole may be too much the congressional craftsman: "No one gets to be president by being careful."
Some people think the Republican 1988 scramble will pit the party establishment against the conservative "movement." That may have been the story in 1980, with the movement's man beating Bush. But after eight Reagan years -- years with Bush at Reagan's side -- the line between party and movement is blurred. So says Sears, and so endeth today's lesson.
Washington's August is a much-maligned month. It is hot and humid, but agreeably torpid as the city sags into the tempo it had when it was a southern village, not long ago. In August, the loudest sounds are the droning of cicadas and the hum of computers in the minds of players such as Sears who are looking at the odds and the angles, and over their shoulders.