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Nothing in particular went wrong for John McCain in the South
Carolina Republican primary. It’s just that things went right — in both
senses of the word — for George Bush.
Exit polls show that 35 percent of the South Carolina electorate were
part of the Christian right, and 61 percent of all voters described
themselves as politically conservative. Republicans accounted for 60
percent of the voters in this open primary. Bush significantly outpolled
McCain among all these groups and demonstrated that the conventional
wisdom which holds that Republican primaries are won by running “to the
right” is intact — at least in South Carolina.
McCain is trying to challenge that orthodoxy and run as a political
reformer, a campaign theme that may turn out to be far more viable in
the general election in November than it is in the primary.
Unfortunately for McCain, he may not get the chance to show the extent
to which that is true. Still, he and the political reform constituency
have turned the Republican primary from what was supposed to be a
foregone conclusion into a highly competitive race for the nomination.
Bush’s endgame effort to cast himself as a reformer was not a big factor
in his win, except insofar as his “Reformer with Results” slogan was
part of a strategy to undercut McCain’s credibility as an
anti-establishment reformer. Bush hammered his opponent with negative
ads that tied him to the “Iron Triangle” (special interests, lobbyists
and legislators) that McCain passionately campaigns against. By election
day, Bush had sufficiently mobilized his core voters and demobilized
McCain’s to make the difference. And while Bush’s ardent pursuit of the
right wing could come back to haunt him in November, it’s still a long
way to Philadelphia — site of the Republican National Convention.
While the battle for the Republican nomination is a battle between
the emergent movement for political reform and the tenacious social
conservatives, shaped substantially by the invigorated independent
voter, the Democratic primary is framed in different terms. For the
Democrats, there is one issue of importance: Bill Clinton. Health care,
basketball and Buddhist temples aside, a vote for Al Gore is an
affirmation of Clinton and one for Bill Bradley is negation. Bradley’s
political reform themes, such as they are, are overwhelmed by this
referendum. And while there are plenty of Democrats who support a reform
agenda, the captivating issue of this race for the presidency is the
president himself. With a 60 percent approval rating and a robust
economy, he is a hard non-candidate to beat.
If Republican voters are deciding whether to buck the Iron Triangle
and Democratic voters are deciding whether to turn away from the master
of triangulation, the Reform Party is in a fight for its political life.
The issue here is whether the petty politicking that made headlines last
week will undercut the party’s ability to respond to the public call for
structural political reform. For the moment, McCain has stolen Reform’s
thunder while the party has been sidelined by a series of fratricidal
How prepared is Reform to move beyond the bloodletting and seize the
moment? The party’s newly elected interim chair, Pat Choate believes we
are ready. He and I have discussed and agree on the centrality of
Reform’s connection to the reform crusade. It was the explosion of the
populist revolt against the special interests that created the Reform
Party in the first place. Though barely over two years old, it’s already
time for the party to return to its roots.
Pat Buchanan, now the clear front-runner for the Reform nomination,
can play a role in this regrouping. Buchanan and I discussed this issue
in some detail a month ago. He plans to reemerge after Titanic Tuesday,
once the major primaries are over, with a concentrated effort to pick up
the themes of the need for structural political reform.
Among these are the conduct of the presidential elections themselves.
Buchanan, the Reform Party and the independent voter face a formidable
battle to open up the televised presidential debates in October,
sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, to include more
than just the Republican and Democratic nominees. Right now, a new
NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 53 percent of the American
people think the Reform Party candidate should not have to earn 15
percent in the national polls as a prerequisite for inclusion in the
debates. Once the major party primaries are over, public debate about
(and legal challenges to) the debates will become an important focus of
national political dialogue. The Reform Party’s mission is to spur and
agitate that dialogue while establishing that power-sharing arrangements
under Choate’s guidance can govern the party’s internal business.
As an independent who fought for political reform long before there
was a Reform Party (and who may be doing so long after there is one), I
believe fervently in that agenda. There are some in the Reform Party who
do not share that belief, nor that history. But anyone who is attending
to the McCain phenomenon should be able to see that the movement which
drives it also drives popular support for political independence. McCain
may or may not be finished by March 7.
The drum-beating against the special interest and the two party
oligarchy is just getting under way.