One of the most important but under-acknowledged developments in the race for the Republican presidential nomination has been the attempt by several contenders to yank the GOP away from its conservative moorings on some major party positions.
Not since Ronald Reagan and his conservative armies regained control of the party from the Nixon-Ford-Eastern Establishment wing of the party in 1980 has there been as strong an assault on the GOP’s right-center platform as we have seen in this 2000 cycle.
Certainly, the heaviest challenge to party orthodoxy has come from John McCain, the Arizona senator who has been portrayed as a courageous “maverick” by his friends in the news media because he has challenged many of the GOP’s bedrock positions.
But Mr. McCain is much more than a maverick. He has emerged as the leader of the left-leaning anti-tax-cut, Concord Coalition wing of the party, which has attacked many of the tenets Mr. Reagan established as the GOP’s core principles.
On the party’s long-held right-to-life position, he has raised questions about whether Roe vs. Wade should be overturned, and has made statements in a several interviews that suggest his support for the GOP’s platform plank on this issue is, at best, shaky.
On taxes, his plan would keep income-tax rates including Bill Clinton’s nearly 40 percent top rate where they are now. His plan would also impose more than $100 billion in higher taxes on corporations through so-called loophole closings.
He brought a $500 billion tobacco tax bill out of his committee to the Senate floor, a bill GOP leaders told him would be “dead on arrival” and would never pass. In this fight, he aligned himself with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore and the liberal special interests who never met a tax increase they didn’t like. Fortunately, his bill was killed thanks to the GOP’s conservatives in the House and Senate.
On health-care reform, Mr. McCain thinks the answer is the Kennedy-Clinton Patient Bill of Rights, which would impose yet another set of government regulations on the medical-care industry and give free reign to get-rich-quick trial lawyers to legislate health-care reform through litigation.
This is not the free-market approach that conservatives favor, nor is it the answer to a problem that has largely been created by federal and state government mandates that have priced health-care plans out of the range of millions of lower-income people.
Yet the most far-left position Mr. McCain has taken is embodied in the McCain-Feingold bill. It would impose the heavy hand of government censorship and regulation on people who wish to mount advocacy campaigns for or against an issue in the midst of a political campaign.
Mr. McCain has said repeatedly in the GOP debates that his bill would free us from the influence of “the special interests.” But what the bill would really do is to give the liberal news media (who are Mr. McCain’s biggest allies) and organized labor more power and influence over our elections in the final months of a campaign.
Giving the government ever more power to police and restrict our constitutionally-protected freedoms to advocate or oppose issues goes against everything the party stands for in its platform. It would significantly expand the power of the government over our lives, and Mr. McCain is its biggest promoter.
But there are others who have tried to fundamentally change the party’s positions on other key issues in this election.
Elizabeth Dole began her short-lived presidential campaign by challenging the GOP on three of its most important issues. She attacked the party’s opposition to increased gun controls when the big problem the lack of enforcement of the gun-control laws we already have on the books. She even criticized Gov. George W. Bush’s enactment of a state law that allows licensed people to carry a firearm for their personal protection.
At the same time she said that, however noble the cause, the pro-life movement and the party were wasting their time she used the term “dead-end road” fighting for a Constitutional pro-life amendment, which is a central element of the GOP’s platform.
On the issue of education, Mrs. Dole talked about the need to spend more money on public schools. She gave lip service to school choice, but she did not offer any plan as Mr. Bush has done to provide school-choice vouchers to help parents get their kids out of failing schools.
Even social conservative Gary Bauer is siding with the liberals in his rigid opposition to letting workers put part of their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts the kind of safe, mutual-fund investments that he and 60 million other Americans have made on their own.
In the last several debates, Mr. Bauer, who is running as “a Reagan conservative,” has embraced some of Mr. McCain’s liberal positions, including his campaign-finance reforms and Mr. McCain’s call for more government health-care controls. Mr. Reagan would be aghast.
Fortunately, most Republicans are sticking with their party’s conservative principles in the primaries. Despite Mr. McCain’s victory in New Hampshire, Mr. Bush, Mr. Forbes and Alan Keyes the most consistently conservative guys in the race continue to draw the lion’s share of GOP support in the national polls.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.