IN 1972 the Democratic Party was captured by the ideologues of the left, nominated George McGovern, and crashed. In 1976, the Democrats nominated in Jimmy Carter a candidate who was relatively conservative and pragmatic, and won. In 1980, the Republican Party was captured by the ideologues of the right, nominated in Ronald Reagan a man who preached their doctrines, and won, handsomely. They won again under the same banners in 1984. But in 1988, Ronald Reagan will no longer be there to carry those particular banners.
They are being carried in full color by Congressman Jack Kemp, and in part by evangelical preacher Pat Robertson. But is 1988 going to be a year for ideologues of either right or left?
Ideologies are like women's fashions. They have their vogue. The ideology of the New Deal was a winner from Franklin Delano Roosevelt through Harry Truman, and had a revival under Lyndon Johnson. But by the time of George McGovern, it had run its course. McGovern was late.
The big challenge for 1988 candidates is to identify correctly both what the country needs during the years just ahead and what the voters think the country needs. (The two are not necessarily the same).
What the US needs right now is a sound economy and a sound dollar in order to spare the country the possible consequences of six years of unprecedented (for the US) budget and trade deficits.
It is primarily interesting that at this opening phase of the 1988 US presidential campaign the two candidates most discussed whenever the professional politicians and professional political watchers gather are Senator Robert Dole of Kansas and Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia.
The two have almost everything in common except party affiliation; the first being a Republican, the second a Democrat. Both are moderately conservative, hard working, professional practitioners of the art of making government work.
Senator Nunn is not yet an active candidate. Senator Dole is, with a brisk national campaign organization, local and state organizations, and funds rolling in from enthusiastic supporters. The Dole forces are already confident of the 1988 convention delegations of two important states, Kansas and Iowa. They should do well throughout the farm belt, where the Dole name and record are well known for Dole's help to farmers. But what happens outside the farm belt?
The polls show Vice President George Bush leading Dole. An ABC poll on March 5 put Bush ahead of Dole by 47 to 26. A CBS poll on March 28 gave Bush 32 to 19 for Dole. But in between, on March 15, an NBC poll showed Bush with only 28 against Dole at 23. Dole is clearly a strong candidate, with broad support, but starting behind the Vice President, who has been working at the nomination for six years and, understandably, has a leading position.
There are two unknowns in the equation.
Will Bush continue to enjoy the presumed support of President Reagan right down to the 1988 convention? And what role might Howard Baker, the new White House chief of staff, play at some crucial moment as the campaign unfolds?
At present, it is generally assumed throughout the Republican Party that George Bush is the President's choice for the succession. Mr. Reagan has yet to say anything to throw this assumption into question, although he has done nothing to nail it down. It is an assumption which helps Bush, but does not block Dole, and could be exploded.
Then there is the Howard Baker factor. Baker is of the same breed as Dole and Nunn - a lawmaker. He, too, is a man of the center, a moderate conservative, a pragmatist, who has risen through the ranks of the party.
Baker could influence many convention delegates. Some of his organization has gone over to Dole. If more did, and if the President was seen to lift his own mantle from Bush - then, the Republican nomination would turn into a real race between Bush and Dole.