Perry on Politics: GOP seeks a way out

Published by Tim McNulty on .

By James M. Perry

Every now and again, one or the other of our two major political parties wanders deep into the woods, far away from the mainstream.

It's happening now with the Republicans; it happened with the Democrats in the 1960s.

The fix is never easy and the Repubican problem this time may be especially intractable.

Arizona's Barry Goldwater firmly believed that the Eastern Republican Establishment, led by the likes of Nelson Rockefeller, was a bad thing. Goldwater agreed with others that those effete easterners were too rich, too patronizing, too liberal. And so he contested Rockefeller for the GOP nomination in 1964, and he won, beating Rockefeller in the decisive California primary. Lyndon Johnson crushed him in the fall. Nixon, something of a mystery as a candidate seemingly without any rigid beliefs, defeated Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's VP, narrowly in 1968, easily won re-election in 1972 and then, engulfed in the Watergate scandal, was succeeded by the moderate Gerald Ford who actually lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

warprotestObviously, what the Republicans needed was a leader with something to say. They found their man in Ronald Reagan, not eactly the embodiment of Barry Goldwater but a conservative just the same, and a very classy campaigner. Voters liked Reagan, and millions of Democrats voted for him in 1980 when he swamped Carter.

Reagan moved the Republican Party.

All this time, the Democrats were having troubles of their own. It began in the Vietnam era when opponents of the war included kids with scruffy beards smoking pot who took to the streets in opposition to Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam. "Hey, hey, LBJ" they shouted, "how many kids did you kill today?" It came to a crescendo at the rowdy Democratic convention in Chicago. I can still smell the tear gas.

The Democrats needed a leader who had something to say (Jimmy Carter didn't). They got one, too. His nancyreaganname was Bill Clinton and he was just as smart and just as classy a campaigner as Reagan. And he had something to say -- his party had gone too far to the left, and he wanted to correct it. He wasn't alone. The Democratic Leadership Council had been formed in 1985 following Mondale's shattering defeat and its goal was "to define and galvanize popular support for a new public philosophy bulit on progressive ideals, mainstream values, and innovative, non-bureaucratic, market-based solutions." Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, signed up. He defeated George H.W. Bush, Reagan's VP, in 1992 and served for eight years.

Clinton moved the Democratic Party.

To get back on track, the Republicans need to find a leader with at least some of the skills of Ronald Reagan and with something palatable to say to the American people. Their problem is that politicians such as Reagan and Clinton don't come along very often. The Republican Party, so set in its non-mainstream beliefs, may take a while to find one. First, of course, they have to agree that they need one.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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