“South Carolina can send a strong message of what our party stands for,” Texas Gov. George W. Bush announced the day before that state’s primary. A day later, flush with victory, Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist announced, “We won by uniting the Republican Party.” Both men are absolutely right. Unfortunately for Republicans, however, in doing so, they also lost the November election. Saturday, it turns out was a great day for Democrats.
FACE IT, the Republican party in South Carolina is a political backwater. I traveled the state extensively with the late Republican strategist and South Carolinian Lee Atwater back in 1989, while writing a magazine profile about him. He gave me a guided tour of the party he built on the bricks of resentment: whites who resented blacks; rich folk who resented taxes; Protestants who resented Catholics and small-town religious conservatives who resented Jews, the media, Washington and just about everything about the outside world. Atwater’s angry coalition of resentment delivered South Carolina for George Bush in 1988 and gave us an election campaign filled with images of Willie Horton and visits to flag factories. Nationally, those resentments carried enough power to put Bush over the top. But things have changed.
CONSERVATIVES IN RETREAT
The GOP establishment apparently decided it would rather lose the presidency with Bush than risk losing control of their party to the likes of John McCain.
The conservative movement, while still strong enough to deliver South Carolina in a Republican primary, is in retreat virtually everywhere else. The issues that united it — the Cold War, rising crime, deficit spending, welfare, forced busing and affirmative action — have all either disappeared or diminished in importance.
Its onetime leaders, like Paul Weyrich, are withdrawing from politics and its chief strategists, like William Kristol, are pronouncing its eulogy. In order to save his candidacy in South Carolina, George Bush all but destroyed his hopes for winning the presidency. To win in South Carolina, the candidate who went into Iowa as the candidate of “compassionate conservatism” left South Carolina as the candidate of “kamikaze conservatism.” Bush made a friendly visit to the racists who run Bob Jones University without saying a word about its policies forbidding inter-racial dating or its teachings that Catholicism is a cult. He was also forced to adopt extreme conservative — and nationally unpopular — positions on abortion and taxes. He will eat these words many times over between now and November.
INEXPERIENCED AND UNTESTED
It’s hard to understand just why the Republican establishment has tied itself to this man’s campaign so quickly and so unthinkingly. Inexperienced as a governor and untested nationally, Bush won over virtually every party with a one word argument: “electability.” Yet in order to defeat a candidate who is genuinely electable, one who can exploit Al Gore’s weaknesses as the candidate for Chinese funders and Lincoln-bedroom sleepovers, Bush ended up destroying his primary asset. Much like his father, a “gentleman” who showed a remarkable willingness to embark on political search-and-destroy missions whenever his election appeared threatened, Bush sat by while his supporters unleashed a vicious barrage of character attacks on John McCain, the former POW and genuinely reformist candidate. Exit polls showed that more than three in four Bush voters called themselves Republicans, while only two in five McCain voters did. Among those who said they had no links to the religious right, the two men fought each other to a draw.
The polls also demonstrated that while a full 30 percent of voters were new to Republican primaries, traditional Republicans turned out in droves for Bush. These Republicans, like their leaders, apparently decided they would rather lose the presidency with Bush than risk losing control of their party to the likes of John McCain.
THE PARTY’S OVER
This is not an entirely irrational calculation. Political parties to not really exist anymore except as drop-off points for wealthy contributors and single-issue organizers. McCain’s campaign finance proposals are aimed squarely at reducing the power of these groups. Better, many of them decided, to hold onto our money and power at home than win control of the entire country but lose our special powers. For McCain to win, therefore, he needed to fill the primary process with hundreds of thousands of new voters — real people without any ties to either entrenched money or political special interest. The insurgency strategy succeeded brilliantly in New Hampshire, but ran smack into the Lee Atwater/Ralph Reed “firewall” in South Carolina. Now, as both candidates go to Michigan — the last state for months where Democrats and independents can cross over — McCain is in the same do-or-die position that Bush faced last Saturday. A loss in Michigan for McCain and the game is essentially over.
GORE REAPS THE BENEFITS
Meanwhile, the biggest winner in the South Carolina vote was Al Gore. Neither he, nor anyone else in the Democratic party had figured out how to blunt John McCain’s appeal to independents and onetime Reagan Democrats. But with South Carolina-fried George W. Bush as the Republican nominee, they won’t have to bother. Will the country throw out an essentially successful administration for a candidate who is wholly untested and panders to the narrowest elements of his party? Will it elect the moderate leader of a broad coalition or the spokesman for a group of special interests already over-represented in the extremely unpopular Republican Congress? Not bloody likely.
In 1988, the Democrats chose a presidential candidate whom they hardly knew, but believed could win based on his untested ability to appeal to voters beyond the party’s traditional base. But because of the vagaries of the primary process, he was forced to embrace the most unpopular elements of the party and could not prevent his opponent from turning him to a caricature liberal Democrat by the time November rolled around. Remember President Dukakis? That’s his picture up there on the wall… right next to President George W.
Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation and the author of books, most recently, “It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen.” He is a regular contributor to MSNBC on the Internet.
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