CONCERNING the jockeying within the Republican Party for the 1988 presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan's recent operation changes nothing -- and everything. The electoral calendar is still the same. The contenders are still the same. The President is still in office. Psychologically, though, the succession -- the upheaval in GOP leadership -- has somehow drawn nearer. And, of course, talk about who could become the nominee in 1988 is being supplemented, sotto voce, by speculation about who just might become President before then and change the whole political context: Vice-President George Bush.
For all these reasons, it is useful to take a look at the changing GOP presidential picture by taking a look at (and puncturing) some of the prevalent myths.
George Bush's backing is a mile wide and an inch deep: This has always been an exaggeration. True, even though national polls give front-runner Bush 40 to 50 percent support among rank-and-file Republicans, many GOP politicians have been skeptical. Mr. Bush is neither charismatic nor particularly feisty, and by 1988, after eight years, Americans may very well be tired of him. Besides, the last sitting vice-president elected to the presidency was Martin Van Buren in 1836, hardly a cheering precedent.
On the other hand, in recent decades holding or having held the vice-presidency has become a powerful launching pad for winning party nominations -- witness Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984.
Since 1 in 3 Presidents in the 20th century have not completed the terms for which they were elected, Bush has, since his election as vice-president in 1980, been considered to have a serious chance of taking over the presidency. That possibility is now probably even higher. Succeeding to the presidency in 1987, say, would immeasurably strengthen Bush's circumstances.
One way or another, then, there's a reasonably good chance that George Bush will be the Republican presidential nominee in 1988. That goes a long way to rally bandwagon-seeking politicians.
Robert Dole has no support beyond the Washington Beltway: Senate majority leader Dole is the Washington insiders' candidate, cynics say. Intriguingly, though, the two most recent polls of GOP rank-and-file Republican voter opinion, one national and one from California, show Mr. Dole to be one of the GOP contenders most popular with the public, more so than allegedly charismatic Congressman Jack Kemp.
What's more, the majority leader's public support has been climbing for the last few months, during the budget debate. Were former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, another moderate-conservative Republican, to abandon his long-shot candidacy, his supporters would likely shift in part to Dole, helping the Kansas senator surge in the polls and emerge as the GOP electorate's principal alternative to George Bush.
By contrast, most inside-the-Beltway GOP insiders and power brokers, while acknowledging Dole's talent, just don't believe he can prevail in 1988. They argue (correctly) that Senate leadership positions have no history as successful operating bases for winning presidential nominations. And they cite Dole's proclivity for wisecracks, something the public may not accept in a president.
Jack Kemp is surging at the grass roots: Not if we're talking about the electorate. Back in 1981, when Mr. Kemp's controversial tax-cut economics was seen as the wave of the future, the New York congressman sometimes drew 20 or 25 percent in trial heats of rank-and-file, post-Reagan Republican presidential preferences. Today, by contrast, he is much lower, witness the Gallup and California poll data. Where Kemp does well, however, is among conservative and Republican activists -- the party workers, coun ty committee members, and ideological-cause enthusiasts -- who are distinctly more conservative than self-identified Republicans in the overall electorate. For example, the straw poll at this spring's convention for college Young Republicans put Kemp in first place, with 58 percent backing. And this kind of enthusiasm cannot be dismissed.
Howard Baker is fading: Not really. Now that he is out of the Senate, Baker doesn't have much of a political organization, and he's not doing much campaigning. But that is deliberate. He's waiting for 1986 to make up his mind, and so far he hasn't lost much of his former support. Some, but not a lot. On the other hand, not many Republican power brokers really expect Howard Baker to make a serious 1987-88 presidential bid, and his support is slowly trickling away.
There are other potential candidates, too -- including Jeane Kirkpatrick and Sen. Jesse Helms. But the Republican Party is not an institution easily taken by storm. No one will get the nomination in 1988 without being strong in the national polls or enjoying dedicated grass-roots activist support such as Barry Goldwater did in 1964. So for the moment at least, it's fair to focus on the four men above. As a result of the President's health situation, Dole and Kemp could both have new programmatic and ins titutional opportunities for leadership over the next few years. But the biggest change of all is the marginally increased possibility that George Bush could actually become president. And given the way Americans have rallied around (and then usually elected to full terms) the previous vice-presidents who have been thrust into the Oval Office, Bush's 1988 election prospects could change dramatically. Kevin Phillips, author and commentator, is publisher of The American Political Report.