Former vice president Dan Quayle said here today that the Republican Party establishment should regard the possible defection of Patrick J. Buchanan as a "wake-up call" to address "genuine frustration" among grass-roots conservatives over the direction of the party.
Quayle, attempting to energize his own struggling campaign and critical of the party hierarchy's support for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said frustrated activists see "very little difference" between the Democratic and Republican establishments.
"My friends, a campaign without ideas is no campaign at all," Quayle told a breakfast audience.
In rallying behind Bush's candidacy, Quayle said, GOP leaders have shown they are interested only in winning, not in what the party should stand for. He said Republicans could pay a huge price in 2000 if they don't heed the frustration in the GOP coalition and begin a serious debate in the presidential primaries.
"I've got unbelievable confidence in the American people that they want to have this debate on ideas, that message does win out over money, that substance is more important than glitz, that a philosophy is more important than a photo opportunity," Quayle said. "But it's going to take courage, real courage, to challenge the establishment and the current thinking."
Quayle said that although he shares the frustration of Buchanan and conservative New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith, who quit the GOP in July, he "profoundly" disagrees with any decision to leave the party. But he was equally scornful of the "go-along-to-get-along" attitude of many in the party, who he said were being swept along by the false promise of inevitability surrounding Bush's candidacy.
"I will continue to fight for what I believe in," he said. "I will continue to argue for a reform agenda that I think is best for America."
Buchanan said on Sunday that he may seek the Reform Party nomination in 2000, which many analysts said could jeopardize the GOP's chances of winning back the White House.
Many Republican leaders have pleaded with Buchanan not to quit, but Quayle did not send that signal today. Instead, he sought to establish himself as the conservative alternative to Bush, despite a poor finish in the Iowa straw poll last month and New Hampshire opinion polls that show him in sixth place.
Quayle outlined a campaign agenda today that includes an overhaul of the tax code and sharp tax cuts, term limits, legal and regulatory reform, and an education plan that calls for school choice and more classroom discipline. "This is a reform agenda that will unite our party and it will unite the country," he said.
The party's most conservative voters remain divided, with their support split among Quayle, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, family values advocate Gary Bauer and Buchanan.
In an interview between campaign events, Quayle said many of these voters believe that Bush cannot be defeated in the primaries and are looking to cast a protest vote, rather than searching for a conservative alternative to the Texas governor.
"The grass-roots activists have bought into this idea to some extent that it's over, that it's inevitable, so they're going to throw our vote to the most hard-core [candidate] on whatever issue that motivates them," he said.
Quayle was sharply critical of Bush's education plan, which calls for tying federal funds for disadvantaged students to school performance. "He's absolutely wrong in having the federal government more involved in education," Quayle said.
On foreign policy, Quayle was even more dismissive toward Bush. Asked whether he believes that Bush is more of an interventionist than he is, Quayle said, "I just don't think he's thought this out that much."
But asked if there are significant differences between him and Bush on social and cultural issues, which are important to many grass-roots conservatives, Quayle said, "I don't think there's that much difference."