The GOP's two-faced approach to third-party politics

By Peter Dominic
web posted September 6, 1999

Have you heard these words before?

"I could not support him and I will not support him. But don't worry, he won't be the nominee. If he is the nominee, there will be a third party"

Strong words, are they not? The average Republican might guess that these are the words of Senator Bob Smith or Pat Buchanan, and that the subject of the threat is George W. Bush.

Guess again. That divisive and hell-to-pay language sprang from the jowls of William Bennett not long ago. The unofficial spokesman of the GOP (and others like him) repeated this threat many times before there was a clear winner during that primary season. The year was 1996, and the subject of Bennett's scorn was, of course, that pesky conservative Pat Buchanan. (American Political Network; 2/28/1996)

During these times of coalition-building and third-party fever, Republicans are wringing their hands and cursing conservatives. Republican leaders are worried that all this bickering about inconvenient principles will break up of the Republican Party...and indirectly secure a victory for a different power-structure.

Republicans dismayed by conservatives' demands should realize that the GOP is in the final stages of certain collapse – the breakup of Reagan's Party began years ago. And it began when the modern GOP-leadership used a dirty brand of third-party politics against conservatives.

1996. The Buchanan-led conservatives announced that they would challenge the Establishment figure for the nomination. The GOP-leadership smiled and nodded. But, as we all remember, this campaign revealed the incredible divide between rank-and-file Republicans and their party leadership. Soon after the race began, the Republican National Committee was downright scared. Buchanan had secured some early victories, had nearly beaten Dole in his own backyard state of Iowa, and captured the critical state of New Hampshire.

What to do? The Establishment decided that there was no time for a "wait and see" approach. All concerned saw the GOP commit itself to games before only associated with modern-day Democrats. Remember those tactics used so often by Democrats against Republicans?

Some of the Party's enforcers were already at work and we all remember their anti-Buchanan insults and political resolutions. Governors Whitman and Wilson, Mayor Giuliani, General Powell and many others were trotted out to sabotage the Buchanan campaign with thinly-veiled threats. This gang – without reproach from the Republican National Committee – had delivered their clear message to state offices across the country: "Buchanan will not be supported if he wins the nomination. Get rid of him now."

But that was not enough. The conservative threat still loomed large. Most rank-and-file Republicans already knew that these complainers were moderate-to-liberal, and cutthroat-personalities to boot. So the GOP-leadership gave its marching orders to more effective company men. Among many others: William Safire, the famous anti-Clinton columnist, seemed to lose his mind in comparing Buchanan to Adolf Hitler; Jack Kemp hinted that Buchanan was responsible for the nation's anti-immigrant attitude; Senator Alphonse D'Amato railed against the "anti-Semitism" of Buchanan and his supporters; George Will began to refer to Buchanan with derogatory buzz-words. This fearsome display left no room for doubt: if Buchanan somehow triumphed against his own party's attacks and captured the nomination, GOP moderates and neoconservatives would lend support to Clinton by either continuing their attacks against Buchanan or by supporting a third-party candidate.

Bill Bennett intensified his public attacks on Buchanan's reputation while doing the talk-show circuit. Leaving behind critical analysis and his expertise in virtue, Bennett often repeated the now-famous charge that Buchanan was "flirting with fascism" and screamed that Buchanan was hypocritical on immigration…because Buchanan's ancestors were immigrants. While Bennett was dealing in his circus-bear brand of smear, Bill Kristol -- now most-favored talking head – was beating the Buchanan campaign with ugly-but-convenient terms. Bill Kristol, like Bennett before him, issued an ultimatum to all Republicans when he announced on national television that he would never vote for Buchanan, whether Buchanan won the nomination or not. (CNN, 2/24/96)

The hope for a conservative nominee was over – too many conservative voters bowed their heads before the onslaught and meekly wandered into the Dole camp. Some conservatives chose later, understandably, to vote third party in 1996, and still others gave the party the "electoral-finger" by refusing to vote. The Republican Party had finally communicated its threat to the candidates and voters: a conservative candidate would not be allowed to compete with the Party-favorite.

What, then, is a conservative candidate to do? What is a conservative voter to do? When it is painfully clear that the GOP will use Carvillian tactics against a successful conservative candidate, the "game" becomes fixed. There is no true game, because there are no rules. And, as we all know, when there are no rules, those without conscience will inevitably "win."

Some sneering Republican commentators have suggested that today's idealistic conservatives are like little children who, "If they lose at a game, threaten to take their ball and go home." Is that the case, Bill Bennett, Bill Kristol, Bill Safire?

This bevy of babbling Bills and their Republican compatriots might make honest use of the metaphor with the following: "If they try to play the game, ill-mannered brutes surround them, call them names, take their ball, and order them to cheer on the sidelines."

Some conservatives have merely had enough. Some have decided to band together against the bullies of the playground and fight; others have decided to take their game to another neighborhood.

Perhaps the GOP bigwigs had better get their story straight on third-party policy. Is a third party bad for the Republican Party? Must Republicans always pledge to support the Republican nominee? Or, as the party's policy seems to hold, is "third party" treasonous talk only if uttered by a conservative?

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