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On Why McCain Should Leave The GOP And Mount Reform Campaign by Kevin Phillips
Published on Sunday, March 12, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
On Why McCain Should Leave The GOP And Mount Reform Campaign
by Kevin Phillips

Quick: Name the Republican presidential nominee who mobilized the old Confederacy, allied himself with fringe fundamentalists, raised buckets of money from Texas millionaires, offended the Northeast and sometimes left the impression of being unqualified for the White House.

The answer is Barry M. Goldwater, back in 1964. George W. Bush won't actually be the GOP presidential nominee until August. Still, the Bush analogy to Goldwater, who was beaten by Lyndon B. Johnson 61% to 39%, ought to give GOP party officials the shakes. It suggests yet another Republican presidential electorate divided and weakened, much like the losing coalitions of 1992 and 1996.

Super Tuesday's outcomes, especially the Bush delegate sweep in California, give the Texas governor a large lead, sure to be expanded by March 14 victories in Texas and Florida. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who no longer has a chance for the nomination, has three clear options: he can start laying the groundwork for a run as an independent; he can withhold endorsement of Bush until the latter commits to full campaign reform; or he can play party loyalist, back Bush and eat his own words.

For the Democrats, Tuesday's results mean Vice President Al Gore, their presumed nominee, may be able to count on a chunk of Republican or Republican-leaning independent voters when he faces a weakened Bush.

The Bush parallel to Goldwater is eerie. For those sometime GOP voters of moderate, reform-minded, Perotista or Northeastern origins, the message is deeply negative. The GOP's first convergence of Confederate flags, televangelists and Texas megabucks, which appeared 36 years ago to rally for Goldwater, was an aberration. The 2000 convergence, however, is the logical result of the GOP's Bible Belt focus, fund-raising preoccupation and anti-reform evolution that occurred over the last three decades, especially the last 12 years. It is no coincidence.

In this context, Bush's grab of "compassionate conservatism" and "reform with results" is hard to take too seriously. It tends to shrivel against the backdrop of his recent reliance on the GOP's powerful checkbook and preacher wings.

As this sinks in, and despite some predictable Bush zigs and zags in the direction of reform and compassion, it's likely to cause a repetition of 1992 and 1996: the bolting of GOP-leaning moderates and populists to the Democratic or Reform tickets. Indeed, the Republican role as the proud champion of money and financial power--GOP leaders equate tax cuts with statesmanship and political contributions with free speech--stamps the party as unmistakably as its connections to Bob Jones University and Pat Robertson do.

The two roles, in fact, go together. McCain was wrong in February when he scoffed at the religious right and GOP power brokers and "their failed philosophy that money is our message." Among GOP voters in state after state on Tuesday, the party's leadership and religious right clobbered McCain, who helped them by letting himself get too shrill. Money is still the message, and any failure won't come until November.

The big change since the Goldwater years is that the upper reaches of the religious right--Robertson, Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition, along with the National Right to Life Committee--are no longer outsiders but part of the GOP political and financial establishment.

In the last decade, the national Republican Party, for all its rhetoric, has delivered little to these voters in actual moral or religious legislation. This hasn't mattered much, however, partly because of President Bill Clinton's negative symbolism, but also because the big wheels of the religious right used their brokerage role to keep 10 million to 20 million believers convinced that their dollars, activism and votes would stop abortion, produce pro-family legislation and enact a constitutional amendment allowing school prayer.

In turn, the political contributions, soft money and independent expenditures put out by the religious right helped elect many conservative GOP officeholders who support the sort of upper-bracket economics usually suspect in the Bible Belt. They, in turn, give at least lip service to the religious causes, even if their real loyalty is to the checkbook elite.

President Ronald Reagan was so popular with the fundamentalists that he didn't need their power brokers come election time. But that changed under George Bush, who did not have a conservative ideological core. The religious right didn't trust him, so he had to pander to it. For example, as president, Bush appointed his political aide, Lee Atwater of South Carolina, as Republican national chairman. Atwater courted the big preachers, as well as the big donors. This is how South Carolina, a fundamentalist stronghold, saw its early primary became a "firewall"--first for George Bush and then for his son.

McCain, whose success in New Hampshire relied heavily on condemning Washington's "iron triangle" of lobbyists, campaign contributions and favors to the rich, became anathema to both elites: checkbook and prayer-book. His somewhat screechy counterattack--lambasting both the "big-money special interests" and the religious right--was counterproductive with party regulars. It added to the intraparty polarization: independents, ex-Perot voters, moderate Republicans for McCain; most regular Republicans and conservatives for Bush.

The results in the GOP primaries also bear some relation to those of 1964. The moderate McCain has won a majority of the Northern states that have voted so far. But Bush has won every contest in the old Confederacy and the border states. Ironically, Bush, like Goldwater in 1964, has just cinched his nomination with a victory among California Republicans.

Bush, obviously, is not Goldwater in many other ways--for better and for worse. Goldwater was an ideologue willing to flirt with extremism, preacher-style and otherwise. Bush is a soft conservative who only flirts with the Robertsons and Bob Joneses (or Willie Horton ads) when he needs them. Thirty-six years ago, Goldwater and his preachers and Texas gazillionaire allies were GOP outsiders. Today, George W., the religious-right power brokers and Texas billionaires like Sam Wyly are insiders, part of the cash-nexus Republican establishment. What used to be outside is now in.

But this establishment was weakened twice in the 1990s, by Ross Perot's ability to harness many of the dissidents who back McCain now. For Goldwater to come unglued in 1964 required dropping far below the GOP presidential showings of 1956 and 1960. This time, the GOP presidential coalition is already preshrunk. Bush will go down in November flames if he simply repeats either the disastrous 38% of his father, in 1992, or the weak 43% of Bob Dole, in 1996. Both men, Bush Senior and Dole, carried most of the South but lost most of the North.

The 2000 race could be just as tricky. Polls show that McCain would win about a quarter of the vote by running as an independent. He has said he won't, but the temptation could be great, for two reasons: first, because fighting for reform within the GOP is a waste of time; second, because if McCain could get 19%, as Perot did in 1992, he could ensure the success of major campaign reform, especially the elimination of soft-dollar contributions, just as Perot forced the Republicans and Democrats to deal with the deficit.

During the last century, reform-minded Republicans have run for president as independents three times after their faction was stiffed by party regulars: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert M. La Follette in 1924 and John B. Anderson in 1980. If this is too bold for McCain, he could simply refuse to endorse Bush until the latter accepts the election-money reforms McCain has made the centerpiece of his campaign. Such action would probably help the Reform Party get 6%-12% of the November vote. True, this would help Democrat Gore to beat Bush. But a large number of pro-McCain Republicans and independents already prefer Gore to Bush, or think Gore is at least better than Bush on campaign reform.

In short, the February and early March brouhaha in the GOP presidential campaign has reopened schisms akin to those in 1992, when almost a quarter of Republicans voted for either Clinton or Perot, and in 1996, when 15%-20% did. We should remember that Perot, too, called for political reform and thumbed his nose at the religious right, which shunned him in return. McCain did not create this division, but his courage and outspokenness have made him reform's most credible current national leader.

We have reached an extraordinary fork in the U.S. political road. It is almost too much to ask of someone who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, but McCain can either roll over and support the imminent nominee of the monied interests and televangelists or he can, in one way or another, seek to pick up the banner of independent reform politics that lies at his feet.

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Kevin Phillips, a Political Analyst and Historian, Wrote "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969. His Most Recent Book Is "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-america."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times


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