A Fractured GOP Ponders Election 2000

Will Rogers was wrong. He said, ''I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.'' Well, guess which party is falling apart these days? Sorry, Will. It's the GOP.

All Republicans today claim to be direct lineal descendants of President Reagan. Like most other descendants, they're squabbling over the inheritance. A recent poll by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates found the Republicans doubly divided. They're split between economic conservatives and social conservatives. That's well known. But economic and social conservatives are also divided among themselves. That's new.

Economic conservatives are split between deficit hawks and supply-siders. Supply-siders maintain that tax cuts are the answer. The answer for what? For economic growth, the budget deficit, poverty, crime . . . whatever.

Social conservatives are divided between moralists, whose top concern is ''family values'' (meaning opposition to abortion and homosexuality) and ''cultural populists.'' The pollsters hem and haw about just who the ''cultural populists'' are, saying they are ''very hard-edged on issues like crime, drugs, affirmative action and welfare.''

With no dominant figure uniting the party, the race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2000 is wide open. Each faction is actively searching for a horse to ride.

Supply-siders could have at least two choices--Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes Jr. and Jack F. Kemp. In 1996, Forbes said he would not have run for President if Kemp had run. But that was then.

The deficit hawks' last hero was 1996 White House hopeful Robert Dole. The problem is, the deficit is not a winning issue. The last man who got elected President on a campaign that made balancing the budget the top priority was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Dole realized he was getting no mileage out of the deficit issue last year, so he became an 11th-hour convert to the supply-side faith. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm also ran on the deficit issue last year, and he didn't even make it as far as New Hampshire. He may try again in 2000.

The rising star among deficit hawks is a young Ohio House Member, John R. Kasich, chairman of the chamber's Budget Committee. Kasich is brash, boyish and immensely personable. And he just got married, which ratchets up his standing on the Mention Meter.

The hero of ''cultural populists,'' once and forever, is Richard Nixon. They share Nixon's seething resentments--of the press, of the Establishment, of the Kennedys. Former Nixon speechwriter and perennial defender Patrick J. Buchanan is the new champion of the populist cause. Although he is staunchly anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights, the Religious Right did not jump on Buchanan's presidential bandwagon in 1992 or 1996. They didn't want him as their horse.

The Religious Right is not out to bring down the Republican Establishment. They want to join it. They want legitimacy, or what Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, calls ''a place at the table.'' Ex-Vice President Dan Quayle is the favorite of this faction, and family values is his issue. But it's far from clear that he can give the Religious Right legitimacy in 2000.

According to the Fabrizio, McLaughlin poll, ''progressives'' make up 5-10 per cent of the GOP. Call this faction the ''Volvo Republicans''--they're affluent, well educated, fiscally conservative and distressed by the stranglehold the Religious Right has on their party. The Volvo Republicans tend to cluster in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

Three GOP governors--New York's George E. Pataki, New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman and California's Pete Wilson-- could be presidential possibilities, but all of them support abortion rights. Their nominations would provoke a showdown over abortion, and possibly a costly party split.

The progressive faction's dream candidate is Colin L. Powell. Conservative activists might try to stop a Powell nomination, but his standing is so strong that he would roll right over them. What would it take for Powell to run? Probably some kind of national calamity.

A core Republican faction that went oddly unnoticed in the Fabrizio, McLaughlin survey is made up of New South conservatives. Look at the party's congressional leaders: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey of Texas. Their issue is the contention that Washington doesn't have all the answers. Lott may run in 2000, but as Dole discovered, being Senate Majority Leader instantly defines you as part of the Washington Establishment.

The New South conservative who's drawing a lot of attention right now is Texas Gov. George W. Bush. He has offered a bold and risky tax reform proposal. If it gets through the state Legislature in some recognizable form, it could propel him to reelection next year and maybe a White House run two years later.

Then there are Tennessee's two potential contenders. Former Gov. Lamar Alexander didn't fare very well with southern GOP primary voters in 1996, but at a recent Nashville fund- raising dinner, he reportedly raised $ 1 million toward another try. And Sen. Fred D. Thompson will soon be starring in televised hearings on campaign fund-raising scandals. Those hearings could turn him into a popular hero, but they could also get him into deep trouble with Republicans if he carries through with his threat to investigate fund-raising violations by both parties.

If the campaign reform issue turns out to have a big political payoff, Senate insider Thompson would be positioned as an anti-Washington outsider. Like Reagan in 1976 and 1980, he'd be running against his own party's Establishment.

But Thompson's an ex-movie actor. Would Americans elect an ex-movie actor to be their President? What a crazy idea.

William Schneider is a resident fellow at AEI.

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