THERE WERE Reagan-Kemp lapel buttons at the Republicans' 1980 national convention in Detroit and Bush-Kemp buttons at the New Orleans convention in 1988. Now, eight years later, this town is festooned with Dole-Kemp memorabilia, and this time it's not wishful thinking. The most optimistic Republican since Ronald Reagan -- and the most energetic since Teddy Roosevelt -- is on his party's national ticket at last.
Presidential candidates usually get a "bounce" as they leave their nominating convention. By naming Jack Kemp as his choice for vice president, Bob Dole got one on his way in. For sheer personal attractiveness, Kemp is easily the best GOP running-mate in decades. Katherine Hepburn once explained the appeal of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers by noting that he gave her class and she gave him sex appeal. A similar synergy will power the Republican ticket: Dole gives Kemp dignity, Kemp gives Dole excitement.
Yesterday, Republicans formally adopted their platform, which less than a week ago was the focus of burning media attention. No muss, no fuss, no floor fight. The sideshow skirmish over the abortion plank, elevated in press accounts to the war of Gog and Magog, was forgotten even before the convention opened yesterday morning. Confirmed once again was a straightforward fact of presidential contests: Campaign platforms don't matter.
But campaign ideas do. It is message -- more than money, demographics, or polls -- that drives modern American politics. For Republicans, one message above all has been the key to victory: Less government, lower taxes, more freedom. In a word, Reaganism.
In 1980, 1984, and 1988, Reagan conservatism won the White House. Once in office, George Bush abandoned his predecessor's legacy and was defeated in 1992. Two years later, Newt Gingrich and an army of Reagan Republicans swept to power, taking over Congress for the first time since the 1950s. The lesson is unclear only to those who refuse to see it: Reaganite conservatives are the GOP's winners.
Which is why the most important question about the 1996 Dole campaign has been whether he intended to campaign as a Reaganite or not.
The signals, to put it charitably, have been mixed.
Dole sounded wincingly insincere when he told a group of Republican delegates last year, "I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that's what you want." During the fight over a balanced budget in January, he joined President Clinton in blaming House Republicans for shutting down the federal government. For months, Dole flirted openly with Colin Powell, the Republican Party's leading anticonservative. When the promise of a simplified flat tax was galvanizing Republican primary voters, Dole was notably cool to the idea. And the speech he gave upon resigning from the Senate was a paean to big-government liberalism: farm subsidies, food stamps, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Social Security tax increase.
"Dole," Republican analyst David Frum summed it up in mid-July, "could not possibly be signaling more clearly his indifference to, even his disdain for, the conservatives for whose support he once begged."
But that judgment, it now appears, was premature. For by reaching out to Kemp -- hero of the GOP's "Lincoln wing," co-architect of Reagan's supply-side tax cuts, self-described "bleeding-heart conservative," and unquenchable prophet of growth, opportunity, and free markets -- Dole has unfurled the Reaganite banner and hoisted it aloft.
In fact, the Kemp selection is the third of four pre-Labor Day milestones for the Dole campaign, each of which has marked a victory for Reagan conservatives.
Jack Kemp is the most optimistic Republican since Ronald Reagan, and the most energetic since Teddy Roosevelt
First was Dole's departure from the Senate in June. Republican reformers groaned at his leave-taking speech, but the practical effect of his resignation was to elevate Reaganite Trent Lott to majority leader -- and cement control of Congress in the hands of Reagan conservatives. As if to drive the point home, the Kansas primary to fill Dole's seat was won last Tuesday by freshman Rep. Sam Brownback, an ardent Reagan-Gingrich-Kemp Republican.
The second milestone was the tax-cut package Dole announced on Aug. 5. Promising to "finish the job Ronald Reagan started so brilliantly," he implicitly disavowed his own record as a tax-raiser, embracing the supply-side growth message that has proven so potent for his party.
With Milestone 3 -- picking Kemp -- Dole has enlisted the nation's most articulate champion of Reagan's uplifting ideas. Lyrical and buoyant, Kemp is a born humanitarian. His concern for the poor is open and heartfelt; his dedication to civil rights has been a mainstay of his career. When Kemp campaigns for tax cuts as a way of helping even the poorest Americans, no one will challenge his sincerity, and many will be moved by his passion.
But at bottom, it is Dole who will win or lose this election. Milestone 4 comes Thursday night, when the new nominee addresses the convention. Millions of Americans will be tuning in, many of them focusing on Dole for the first time. If the doughty old Kansan is indeed prepared "to be another Ronald Reagan," that will be the hour to prove it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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