The Peter Principles: Seize the reins

By PETER ROFF, United Press International  |  Dec. 6, 2002 at 7:35 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- The American political process is a very fluid thing.

Every few decades the two major political parties go through some kind of upheaval that has a transforming effect on campaigns and on public policy.

It took conservatives almost 50 years to take control of the Republican Party from the "Eastern Establishment." In 1952, the conservatives ran a candidate for president, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, but could not get him the nomination.

In 1964, they nominated Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater but could not win the election.

In 1980, they won the nomination with former California Gov. Ronald Reagan -- after coming within an eyelash of getting it for him in 1976 -- and he was elected. Though he brought in a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate that lasted until 1986, the strength of the Democrats in the U.S. House and in statehouses and governorships across America prevented him from achieving all the policy objectives on which he campaigned.

Each advance was built on top of the previous efforts as the party structure grew and its political influence increased. In 2000, the close to 30 Republican governors decided to agree on a nominee beforehand and use the state political organizations under their control to ensure he won the nomination. The strategy worked.

In 2002, with a Republican in the White House, the GOP has a partisan but not necessarily ideological majority in the U.S. House and Senate, among the nation's governors and in state houses and senates from coast to coast.

The Democrats have been in the throes of an ideological struggle since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won the presidency with 486 electoral votes and 61 percent of the popular vote.

The party's post-1968 reform of its nominating process changed its structure substantially. The reforms weakened, if not eliminated, the influence of local elected officials, awarding it to interest groups and blocs based on color and sex rather than political power.

The results have been disastrous. No candidate for president has won the election without first disavowing the liberalism of the national party and its nominating structure. Though Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton governed from the left, they campaigned from the middle. When Carter moved left in 1980 to check Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy in the primary, he won the nomination but lost the country.

By appealing to what his consultant Dick Morris called "the vital center," Clinton was able to use his base as leader of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council along with his tremendous political skills to win the nomination and the election -- all the while resisting ideological definition.

The Democrats lack the ability to do that again. Al Gore was able to win the party nomination in 2000 largely because he was the sitting vice president. His office gave him the political organization and contacts necessary to drive out serious opponents out of the race before they entered it.

Now that he is out of office, the field is much more open.

It may be that the Clintonites within the party are engaged in an effort to take back the nominating process from the special interests process by taking over or creating state political organizations.

Clinton insider Terry McAuliffe leads the Democratic National Committee. Former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's top aide during her successful run for U.S. Senate in New York, Howard Wolfson, ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the last two years.

In the states, a number of former Clinton staffers and administration officials made bids for elective office.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno sought the governorship of Florida. One Clinton era DNC chairman, Ed Rendell, was elected governor of Pennsylvania while another, Steve Grossman, made a bid for the party's gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts.

Clinton Energy Secretary Bill Richardson won the governorship in New Mexico. Former Clinton White House chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, tried for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. Jim Blanchard, the former Michigan governor whom Clinton named ambassador to Canada, made an effort to return to office in 2002.

Clinton White House alumni seeking elective office in 2002 included Fred duVal in Arizona and Rahm Emmanuel in Illinois. New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen, Maryland's Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Connecticut's William Curry, all "Friends of Bill," were on the ballot statewide in November.

Most of them were unsuccessful; however, had they won, it would have created an interesting state of affairs: Clinton allies in prominent positions nationally and in states important to the party's presidential nominating process.

As the Republicans demonstrated with George W. Bush in 2000, statewide officials can build political organizations that provide presidential contenders with access to money, activists, consultants and media.

These organizations also facilitate the collection of the all-important endorsements that can turn a "wannabe" into a front-runner.

A similar slate of candidates could be more successful in 2004 or 2006, especially if there is an anti-Republican backlash in either of those years. The potential to reach critical mass, to seize the reins of the nominating process before the 2008 presidential race begins in earnest still exists.

The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.

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