A new politics for the new millennium: That's the message the voters of New Hampshire, in unprecedented numbers and in both political parties, sent yesterday.
The Republican result is, of course, the more startling. The three movement conservatives left in the Republican race received a grand total of about 20 percent of the votes--less than Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes in 1996, less than Buchanan alone in 1992, less than Jack Kemp and Pierre DuPont and Pat Robertson in 1988, less than Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1976. Leaderless, rudderless and issueless, the conservative movement, which accomplished great things over the past quarter-century, is finished.
And its great intramural rival--the Republican establishment--is hardly better off. After the general election failures of George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, and after the pathetic showing of its standard-bearer, George W. Bush, yesterday, the GOP bosses, the corporate leaders and the K Street lobbyists are justifiably in a state of panic. Has the Republican establishment ever been more thoroughly united than it was behind its favorite son, George W. Bush? And has the GOP establishment ever been more thoroughly repudiated than it was in New Hampshire yesterday?
For 50 years, the battle between these two forces--the GOP establishment and the conservative movement--has shaped the fate of the Republican Party. The Republican establishment usually won (Nixon, Bush, Dole), the conservative movement occasionally prevailed (Goldwater, Reagan). Now they both have lost control. The screams of anguish emanating from K Street and from the Heritage Foundation are evidence that it's a new moment for the Republican Party.
As it could be for the Democrats. An incumbent vice president, serving in the most successful Democratic administration of the past half-century, is deep in trouble. His boss's impeachment obviously didn't help; but Al Gore is free of Bill Clinton's personal problems; and the booming economy, the declining crime rate and the shrinking welfare rolls should have made his victory an easy one. Instead Bill Bradley, despite a host of tactical errors, does better against Gore than Gene McCarthy did against Lyndon Johnson in the year of Vietnam and riots, and better than Edward Kennedy did against Jimmy Carter in the year of stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis.
What happens next? New moments are by definition unpredictable. Both McCain and Bradley are riding tigers they only partly control.
But what is clear is this: The old order has been crumbling throughout this decade. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, just as conventional wisdom was agreeing on a Republican "electoral college lock." The GOP promptly took Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, but Gingrich overplayed his hand, and Clinton was the first Democrat to be reelected to the presidency since FDR. Republicans meanwhile held Congress for the first time in almost 70 years. In 1998 Bill Clinton got himself impeached, the Democrats gained seats in the House, and Newt Gingrich was deposed. Clinton and Gingrich were the dominant politicians of the 1990s. But both failed in their efforts to mold a new, post-Cold War, post-New Deal/Great Society political era. And both were repudiated in yesterday's vote.
It is possible that either Al Gore or George W. Bush, or both, can come back to win their party's nomination. But if the party establishments save their candidacies, they will still be living on borrowed time. It is John McCain and Bill Bradley who each now have a chance that occurs only once a generation--to articulate a new governing agenda for a potential new political majority.
The writer is editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard.