Coming home to the GOP

Thanks to John McCain, Northeastern moderates may be returning to the Republican Party for the first time since being shunted aside by the Reagan right.

Published March 6, 2000 12:00PM (EST)

In the final days of the 1988 presidential campaign, then-Vice President George Bush played a bold hand. Jittery over his narrow, single-digit lead over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Bush decided to take on Dukakis directly, on the socially moderate terrain of New England, instead of retreating to the secure, Reagan-conservative amen corner.

Bush traveled to Fairfield University, a Jesuit college a few miles from his mother's house in Greenwich, Conn., and delivered a blistering attack on Dukakis' budget-and-tax policies. A few days later, of course, he was elected president.

Twelve years later, Bush fils faces a similar moment -- Tuesday's make-or-break "national primary." And on Friday, he was supposed to replay his father's gambit with a large-scale rally at the same Jesuit university, conveniently perched on the edge of both the New York and Connecticut media markets.

It was to have been a return to his clan's home turf: not only the preppy postage stamp of soil where his father grew up, but the political terrain of Northeastern, moderate Republicanism, at a moment when Bush is still under fire for his glad-handing appearance at fanatically anti-Catholic, segregationist Bob Jones University.

That was the plan. What happened instead speaks volumes about the nature of the Republican schism on the eve of Super Tuesday.

George W. Bush didn't show up in Fairfield County, but John McCain did. Bush canceled his Fairfield University rally just hours before it was supposed to start, his staff offering confusing and contradictory explanations ranging from weariness to difficulty securing landing rights for his campaign plane. Meanwhile, McCain blew in to a different Roman Catholic college across town, drawing a cheering throng of thousands.

There is more to this story than just ironic campaign scheduling. That Bush, from a family deeply rooted in the reform Republican tradition of patrician New England, is now hopelessly laden with the baggage of the religious right, while Southern-rooted McCain now pitches himself as the voice of civil libertarian moderation and inclusion, suggests a Republican Party turning itself inside out.

"It's pretty wild -- and it spells one thing, T-R-O-U-B-L-E," admits Chris DePino, Connecticut's Republican state chairman. DePino is representative of a Republican tradition -- pro-civil rights, pro-choice, moderate on social issues -- that went underground with the election of Ronald Reagan. That tradition was exemplified by Sen. Prescott Bush in the 1950s and his son Rep. George Bush in the 1960s before his conversion to Reagan conservatism: Both were ardent supporters of Planned Parenthood; George helped found the Yale chapter of the NAACP. And that was the sort of Republican to whom George W.'s compassionate conservatism was supposed to appeal, which is one reason he attracted the early support of a moderate like DePino.

"I've never thought I had much in common with Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell," says DePino, admitting that Bush's lurch to the right since New Hampshire "has been difficult, even though I know why he is doing it." At the same time he points out that "until recently, McCain had nothing but hugs" for the religious right.

DePino, like the rest of Connecticut's GOP establishment, remains firmly in the Bush camp. But the fact that Bush and McCain are running neck and neck in Connecticut, as well as in New York, Massachusetts and other key Northeastern states, suggests that the GOP may in fact be confronting something more profound than McCain's transitory charisma.

That something is the party's own history. Once upon a time, patrician liberals and moderates like New York's Jacob Javits, Connecticut's Lowell Weicker and Massachusetts' Edward Brooke and Elliot Richardson, appealed to a strain of good-government Republicanism stretching back to Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. This was a reform Republicanism that fought corruption in urban Democratic machines, that took the side of agrarian and entrepreneurial enterprise against corporate trusts and that produced early support for reproductive rights and environmental reform.

But for nearly 20 years, moderate Republicans have seen such reformers vanish from the political landscape, washed over by the tide of Reagan conservatism. McCain, beginning with his campaign-finance rhetoric and continuing with his frontal assault on the religious right, has given that reform GOP tradition its first national articulation in a generation, even if the messenger himself has a deeply conservative voting record.

What McCain has done is illustrate just how profoundly alienated many Republican and independent voters feel from the corner into which the GOP has painted itself by depending upon the far right for its campaign contributions and foot soldiers. So deep is the fault line McCain has opened up that some Republican leaders now doubt it can be healed by November.

"Look, McCain had people like me in the national leadership who used to adore him," says DePino. "He spoke my language. But his strategy here against Bush has been so divisive and Machiavellian -- he has simply decided to throw the 60 percent of Republicans who don't agree with him overboard. As a result, in this primary so far we've done a good job of beating ourselves up, and not enough of gearing up the Republican Party."

Bush's awkward cancellation of a visit to his family's home terrain also suggests the odd psychological undercurrents of this campaign season, including just how much of this election is about fathers and sons, and how questions of heritage and patrimony resonate through this primary season as through none before. George W. aims at restoration of a Bush family dynasty; McCain begins and ends his bestselling memoir with invocations of his admiral father and grandfather, and tangles with the meaning of "heritage" as the descendent of Southern slaveholders. Al Gore, of course, is the scion of a long line of Southern pols, most notably his fiddle-playing father, who was a pioneering integrationist and early opponent of the war in Vietnam.

Super Tuesday thus provides a play of Oedipal politics to gladden the heart of the most orthodox Freudian. But if all three major candidates (assuming that Bill Bradley disappears into historical oblivion ` la Adlai Stevenson) are walking in their fathers' very large boots, only McCain has thus far surpassed the achievements of his forbears on their own playing field through the accident of his imprisonment in Vietnam. And if McCain seems to be driving his campaign like a careening bumper car, perhaps it is because the profound experience of that incarceration has left him with nothing left to lose and nothing at all to prove.

Bush, on the other hand, seems determined to repeat and amplify his father's political bargains. If President Bush bought the right's loyalty with Clarence Thomas, George W. will embrace Bob Jones. If Vice President Bush won the presidency in part by his mean-spirited invocation of Willie Horton as a club against Dukakis, George W. will take tough-crime politics to new heights by approving 126 executions. While John McCain at least rhetorically tries to release himself and his party from the limits of Reagan-Bush orthodoxy, George W. rushes back to that orthodoxy as if it were a brick house in a hurricane.

All this leaves moderate Republican leaders like DePino, early supporters of Bush, profoundly discomfited and anxious. On the one hand, DePino worries that if McCain should win the nomination, bitter GOP leaders in some states will sandbag the campaign: "I like to think campaigns run on ideas, but at end of day we got to have water carriers. I don't know anyone who can get to be president when he's pissed off 50 percent of decision makers who really matter." On the other hand, he admits that Bush took New England's Republicans for granted, and McCain "understood that New Hampshire was a national primary; he took Republican leaders to school on how to run a national election in the year 2000."

Whatever the outcome of Tuesday's primaries, the larger question is whether the Republicans can heal the schism that McCain's campaign has brought to view. Conventional promises to bury the hatchet may not be enough now that the suppressed and troubled heritage of reform Republicanism has suddenly heard its own voice again -- if only for a brief moment in a long election cycle.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz. Religion