In popular political wisdom John Anderson of Illinois is a nice guy who, of course, doesn't have a chance of getting anywhere with his "loner" campaign for the presidency of the United States on the Republican ticket.
He is getting only around two percent of the Republican vote in the preference polls. Most Republicans still say they never heard of him. He had the unmitigated gall to open his campaign by proposing an extra 50-cents- a-gallon federal tax on gasoline. When his Republican rivals at the Des Moines forum talked about cutting taxes, balancing the budget, and out-arming the Russians, all at the same time, he listened. And when it came his turn to respond to the question of how that could be done he replied, "with mirrors."
He is against tax cuts in 1980. He admits that had he been in President Carter's shoes when the choice arose whether to let the Shah come to New York for medical treatment he probably would have done exactly what Mr. Carter did. He thinks it was a mistake for Mr. Carter to call off SALT II. He thinks the Russians build weapons more out of fear of encirclement than out of aggressive intent against the United States. But he favors President Carter's grain embargo as a means of sending a clear signal" to Moscow and he still finds it "passing strange" that his Republican rivals who call for more toughness against Moscow have all shied away from the grain embargo.
In other words, when it comes to breaking the rules in a demagogue's handbook , John Anderson is a champion. He shuns the shibboleths. He talks common sense. He is intelligent, and honest about it.
So, of course, he isn't going to go anywhere in the presidential race. Everybody knows that, don't they?
Yes, with one exception. John Anderson says he thinks he can win. Why? Because he thinks he is the only Republican who could win against the Democrats. v.m Ell. Is there a scenario for US politics, 1980, which might end up with John Anderson in the White House after all? Try the following, just for size and plausibility.
President Carter is headed for the Democratic party's nomination. Senator Edward Kennedy's chances have been damaged severely (probably decisively) by the revival of memories of Chappaquiddick, by his own less-than-brilliant performance in Iowa, and by his inability to find a position in foreign policy either to the hawk or dove side of Mr. Carter.
This same difficulty of finding a place on either side of Mr. Carter in foreign policy is plaguing all the Republicans, except John Anderson. His Republican rivals had all started out as hawks on the assumption that Mr. Carter would be a dove. Mr. Carter's handling of the Iran and Afghanistan affairs probably has been the most brilliant operation in US politics since Harry Truman ran against that "do-nothing Congress" in 1948.
I think some of the Carter operation has been poor foreign policy, particularly the pursuit of sanctions against Iran after Soviet tanks rolled into the Afghan mountains. But we are not talking here about foreign policy. This is politics in an election year. In that sense Mr. Carter has disarmed his rivals at a time when public attention is focused on foreign affairs to the exclusion of anything else. All he had to do was go farther down the "tough with the Russians" road than they dared to follow.
Once, long ago, Washington watchers tended to assume that the 1980 campaign would be about inflation and the economy. The Repubicans, except for John Anderson, are all standing foursquare on the proposition that they can stop inflation and save the dollar. But that posture is seldom entirely convincing -- and will it be the main issue when the conventions roll around in July?
The chances are that foreign policy will still be the main subject of discussion and anxiety in July. If so, who benefits most when the Republicans gather in Detroit? The delegates are going to want to win. Can they win with a candidate in a "hawk" position to the hard side of Mr. Carter? Probably not. Remember what happened to Barry Goldwater in 1964? To sound more warlike than mr. Carter could be dangerous in July. But no one wants to go the dovish side, either. That could be equally dangerous.
John Anderson has positioned himself where he could seem to be the most rational and even realistic Republican candidate. He talks common sense about economics. He is equally rational and realistic about foreign policy. He preaches steadiness, disfavoring sudden lurches with either the economy or foreign policy. He knows that a sound economy means a long-term program. So, too, does handling the Soviets. He has been 20 years in Congress working on economic matters.He was three years in the diplomatic service.
Mr. Carter ran for the Presidency in 1976 as a radical reformer from outside of Washington. John Anderson is a Washington "insider" who knows that radicalism seldom works, whether it be radicalism of left or right.
A man of the center, with lots of experience in Washington, just might be the most effective alternative the Republicans could put up against Mr. Carter in the campaign.
But then, do Republicans really want to win?