BOSTON — I'm curious. just who is at the wheel of the GOP's agenda? Is it the tax-slashers? Is it the cultural conservatives? Is it George W. Bushies, who have so boldly staked out the pro-good, anti-evil ground?
This is starting to become a serious question. Over the last few months, the party long known for its ability to make members walk in lock step is beginning to show the fractiousness and lapses in judgment that are normally hallmarks of, well, Democrats.
In just one summer, the GOP has politically mishandled Kosovo, lost two members to walkouts - the House's Michael Forbes and the Senate's presidential dreamer Bob Smith - and faced a revolt from House moderates unhappy with the way it is handling tax cuts and Medi-care.
In fact, when Republicans look back on the summer of 1999, it looks as if they will be able to claim only one major victory: They beat the Democrats in the congressional baseball game 17-1. And that isn't the kind of thing that stirs voters on election day.
These problems didn't materialize overnight. For the past year, the Republicans have been sleep-walking through governing. They did the Hokey Pokey on impeachment - for it, then against it, then obsessed with it - while switching House Speakers and ignoring anything substantive.
But now all the bobbling and uncertainty have left the party with a very heavy task as it heads toward the 2000 campaign. It has to figure out what it stands for.
Well, the tax-slashers in the House eventually overrode the objections of party moderates and passed an $800 billion tax cut. This has long been the kind of gallant pandering that works well with the American people. But the nation seems unmoved this time.
The GOP is desperate for any sign that Americans are hungry for tax cuts - Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas may yet claim the Woodstock riot was really all about tax relief - but the fact is most people don't put tax breaks at the top of the federal "to do" list.
The House plan was even panned by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who reasoned, wisely, that since the economy was in danger of overheating, there might be better times to give people more money to spend. Meanwhile, the cultural conservatives have returned to their favorite bogyman, the dark forces of PBS. They're upset that PBS stations traded donor lists with Democratic committees - not to mention moderate GOP groups - to raise money. And now some House members are calling for Big Bird's head, demanding that PBS be cut loose from federal funding - a move that would leave the stations in need of more money and force them to trade donor lists with the Democrats and the GOP. It's a lot of noise leading nowhere.
But this divisiveness and complete dearth of new ideas emphasizes exactly how large the burden is on the Republican presidential candidates.
Someone has to take the wheel of the GOP bus soon so that everyone's on board for the convention next summer.
And that, of course, brings us to the golden boy, George W., who up to now has done a fair job of uniting the party by leaving his positions in the fog of front-runner-dom.
Take, for example, Bush's recent major policy announcement, a speech called "The Duty of Hope." (I don't know what it means either.) In the speech, he called for increased tax deductions for charitable giving and more involvement from the "armies of compassion" (a vaguely Orwellian phrase), which really means getting church and community groups more involved in helping with things like after-school programs, drug treatment, and neighborhood rebuilding.
This is not a bad idea, provided the church-and-state questions can be solved. But, it is not really new, and it is not exactly what one would call a major announcement of anything. It is the kind of squishy, vague, communitarian idea people generally support - I'm for helping people without spending a lot of money.
Of course, on the presidential trail, everyone plays the try-and-guess-where-I-really-stand game. It's part of the fun.
But Bush may not have the luxury of playing it as much as the others. His party needs direction and it would be wise for him to weigh in on something more substantial than his feelings about such controversial issues as "helping people," like say the wisdom of an $800 billion tax cut.
The more the GOP bus slides all over the road, the harder it will be to get under control by the convention. And for George W. that is important to remember. If he's not careful he may end up under its wheels.
*Dante Chinni is a researcher at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. His freelance work has appeared in The Economist and The New Republic.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society