Winners and losers

The obvious first loser from the various things done and not done by the Republicans in Detroit during the middle week of July is the Democratic Party. It is deprived of a chance of running against a party anchored firmly to the right of the Carter administration.

Had the Republicans chosen a vice-presidential candidate out of their own right wing the Democrats would almost certainly have had a romp home to victory in November no matter how unpopular President Carter is widely believed, or said , to be. Had both Republican platform and vice-presidential candidate been of the far right the great basic constituencies of the Democratic Party (welfare and social security recipients, organized labor, and the blacks) would have had to rally to Mr. Carter. There would have been no place else for them to go.

But whether by accident or intent (it is not yet clear) the Republicans in Detroit did not form their battle lines on the high plateau of the Republican right which the mass of voters would probably have just walked by, without noting their existence. Instead their new and undoubted leader, Ronald Reagan, tried to get as his running mate Gerald Ford who belongs to the liberal or Eastern (it used to be called the Rockefeller) wing of the party. Failing that he did take Georges Bush who, although coming currently from Texas, was born in Massachusetts and belongs ideologically to the Eastern establishment. And the Republican old guard did not even whimper.

The lack of a whimper is partly because the battalions of the old guard got everything they wanted in the platform. This is their consolation prize from the Republican convention and will be a favorite target of the Democrats during the campaign. However, in US politics, the planks of a party platform are like the sandbags carried in a balloon -- something to be jettisoned to lighten ship. There is nothing in that platform that Mr. Reagan cannot discreetly dump overboard should it become to his advantage.

Also it is now clear that Mr. Reagan himself is no ideologist who would rather lose than compromise a "principle." The effort to get Mr. ford on the ticket and the subsequent choice of Mr. Bush show the political pragmatist at work. That he is what his supporters now call a pragmatist, and his critics an opportunist, had already been indicated by his record as governor of California and the jettisoning of the pro-Taiwan cause just before the convention.

The net result is that the Republicans have a leadership willing and able to take their troops down into the great middle valley of American politics where the majority of voters live and work and hope and fear. It means that Mr. Reagan has so positioned himself and so deployed his forces that he can contest the middle ground with Mr. Carter.

Mr. Carter is, of course, also positioned to battle in and for that middle ground. He is the most conservative candidate the Democrats have had since John W. Davis in 1924. Mr. Davis was a corporation lawyer whose clients included Standard Oil, J. P. Morgan, AT&T, and US Steel. He was also a co-founder of the Liberty League, a right-wing precursor of the John Birch Society.

Of course Mr. Carter is not as conservative as that. But he is conservative enough to be known as a disappointment to organized labor and to the blacks. Their favorite is Senator Kennedy. In politics one is known as much by one's critics as by one's friends. Mr. Carter's critics as by one's friends. Mr. Carter's critics come more from the left than from the right. He is positioned to seek votes from some quarters which have been traditionally Republican just as Mr. Reagan is now positioned to aim at some traditionally Democratic voters.

All of which means that this campaign is shaping up toward a contest in the middle where opportunities for end runs will be few and far between. Mr. Carter will not be running against another Barry Goldwater. Mr. Reagan will not be running against another George McGovern. Both parties have had a try at what the academics call "significant politics." Both have come to grief in that game. Both now are back in the middle.

Which does not necessarily mean a dull campaign, but it does mean a campaign of subleties rather than ideologies. There will be no great battle between right and left because right and left have been avoided by the leaders of both parties. Probably Mr. Reagan's shrewdest move in his entire political career, whether intentional or accidental, was letting his right wingers have everything they wanted in the platform. It bought him freedom to contest with Mr. Carter in the center.

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