WHEN JOHN ASHCROFT, Missouri's junior senator, says he is "considering" a run for president, he wants it understood that all he is doing is — considering.
"When you speak the truth about your intentions in this business, it's taken for granted that you are communicating by euphemism," he says. " 'Considering' or 'testing the waters' usually means 'flat-out running.' But I have not decided."
John Ashcroft, who has won election in Missouri as attorney general, governor, and senator, is considering a presidential run.
Ashcroft knows a bit about running, having twice been elected Missouri's attorney general, then twice elected its governor. But running for president is not like running for anything else. Ask Ashcroft what Republicans ought to learn from Bob Dole's disastrous campaign in 1996, and he doesn't hesitate.
"The number one lesson is: Don't become trapped in the Senate mindset." Senators tend to focus on the "doable," Ashcroft argues, while the presidency embraces the "noble." He compares legislating in the Senate to a demolition derby. "A lot of proposals smash into each other, and eventually you assemble something — a part of this one, a part of that one — that you can drive out of the Senate." Mired in the politics of cobbling something together, senators find it difficult to craft a more uplifting, ennobling message. Which is why, says Ashcroft, only one senator in this century (John Kennedy) has managed to win the White House.
Maybe. But a narrow "Senate mindset" was not Dole's fatal flaw. It was that he campaigned on themes, especially tax cuts and smaller government, belied by his entire career. And a "Senate mindset" is not likely to hobble the other men now testing the Republican presidential waters, since none of them — Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, George W. Bush, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle — is a senator.
No, the real lesson of the Dole failure is that to win, Republicans must nominate a candidate who believes deeply in important conservative principles and can communicate them effectively and appealingly. A Reaganesque prescription? Yes. Is there a Reagan in the field? No. Fortunately for the GOP, it isn't necessary to have Reagan's flair or charisma to connect with Reagan's voters.
With 26 months to go before the New Hampshire primary, Ashcroft knows he is a long shot. But he brings one asset to the presidential marathon no other candidate can claim: He is a born-and-bred son of the "Christian right," the only Republican eyeing the White House who belongs to what is arguably the most important, most unified element of the Reagan coalition.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of religious-social conservatives to the modern GOP. In 1994, the year Republicans seized control of Congress, exit polls showed that evangelical Christians were one of the two groups most likely to vote (the other was gun owners). Grover Norquist, the battle-tested conservative strategist, calculates that religious conservatives accounted for one of every three voters nationwide — and that more than two-thirds of them voted Republican.
In Ashcroft, social conservatives will see one of their own. He is a devout fundamentalist (Assemblies of God), a son and grandson of Pentecostal preachers, a nondrinking, nonsmoking, nondancing gospel singer who will not take a bite of his morning pancakes before bowing his head to say grace. He has been described as "what Richie Cunningham might have become had he grown up and found religion" — an all-American sort (tinkers with old cars, football scholarship to Yale, craves Burger King) with deep roots in what political consultants like to call the "faith community." At the same time he is a talented politician who has always known how to keep his private beliefs private.
"At his first inaugural ball," the Kansas City Star reported, "he deftly avoided embarrassment by playing 'The Missouri Waltz' on the piano rather than calling attention to his religious habits by refusing to dance when the music swelled."
This early in the political cycle, no Republican has a lock on the Christian conservatives. Ashcroft should be a natural for their support, but in national campaigns, "should" doesn't win votes. Strategy, message, money, advertising, and obsessive interest in New Hampshire do.
And so does the ability — which the Gipper had in spades — to successfully woo both wings of the GOP coalition. Look at Steve Forbes. A quintessential fiscal conservative in 1996, Forbes now offers himself as a social conservative, too, speaking as frequently about drugs or partial-birth abortion as about the tax code. But while Forbes's affinity for the cultural right is newly minted, Ashcroft has always been a solid fiscal conservative.
As governor he kept Missouri's tax burden the second-lowest in the nation. Last spring he was one of only a few Republicans to vote against the balanced-budget pact, on the grounds that it hiked spending while barely cutting taxes. "To pass it, they had to blow the lid on the spending caps," he says with disgust. "Some deal — to control spending, you increase spending."
Like Reagan, whom he deeply admires, and Harry Truman, the only president Missouri has produced, Ashcroft exudes the air of a man whose principles are fixed and who is disinclined to change them because a consultant tells him to. After the Dole and Bush debacles, Republicans might find that a refreshing change.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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