WASHINGTON -- Going into next week's national convention in Philadelphia, George W. Bush is more firmly in control of the Republican Party than any of its presidential nominees over the past half-century. Two disparate groups -- "pro-family" conservatives and electoral reformers -- are finding that out to their dismay.
The Family Research Council and allied groups, complaining about Bush's meeting with Republican homosexual activists, have been shut out of contact with the presidential nominee. Republican National Committee members who thought they had Bush's support for a transformation of the presidential primary system are discovering that he prefers no change at all.
The 2000 convention will be owned by Gov. Bush to an extent not approached by Robert J. Dole in 1996 or even President George Bush in 1992. In Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the younger Bush has a rare platform chairman explicitly pledged to mirror the nominee's wishes. Nothing will go into the platform and no speaker will address the convention without the Bush campaign's approval.
The party's rank and file agree, united by fear of Al Gore in the White House. So, social conservatives will find no sympathetic audience in Philadelphia if they come girded for a dispute with Bush that began three months ago.
An April 24 letter to Bush signed by representatives of 10 organizations (headed by the Family Research Council) cited "your highly publicized meeting recently with homosexual activists" who "are trying to use the Republican Party" to "impose acceptance of homosexual behavior." Consequently, "we respectfully request that you demonstrate your commitment to the family by also scheduling a meeting with those of us who believe that homosexual activism poses a serious threat."
Within a week, the letter was leaked by its authors along with a threat that the social conservatives will sit on their hands for the election campaign if Bush does not meet with them. On June 1, Bush signed a four-sentence form letter to Charles Donovan, the Family Research Council president, acknowledging his letter.
On June 8, the conservatives sent Bush a harsher letter demanding that he "demonstrate your commitment to the family" by meeting with them. It complained about "unusual access that you have granted to organizations that are diametrically opposed" to his viewpoint. That he met with homosexuals but not them, they said, is "deeply disturbing." That letter was also given to the press. It can be safely said that its tone and its distribution killed whatever chance there was for a meeting.
The conflict with the primary election reformers is more subtle. The Republican National Committee has approved the "Delaware Plan," setting a new schedule of primary elections intending to lengthen the process of nominating a president. Morton Blackwell, a nationally renowned conservative activist and veteran GOP national committeeman from Virginia, is convinced he had a commitment from the Bush organization not to interfere with the Delaware Plan at the Philadelphia convention.
But high population states are upset about the plan pushing them to the end of the line at the conclusion of the primary system. Nor do some of the party's political leaders like the early stage of the new system, which would force candidates to shuttle between small states from one side of the continent to another.
The official Bush position is neutrality. But one Republican state chairman from a Midwestern state who had supported the Delaware Plan told me of receiving information by this circuitous route: he had been advised by his governor that he was told by a senior Bush operative in Austin that the campaign would like to see this decision put off beyond the Philadelphia convention. That indeed appears to be the Bush position. Blackwell will fight, but the big battalions are not on his side.
Not only is Bush in command but his chief political operative is no neophyte but Karl Rove, who at age 49 has experience at national conventions dating back to 1972. He represents a candidate who does not want this convention to devolve into gay-bashing or a tumultuous battle over the 2004 primaries. What he wants is the calmest Republican gathering since 1924 preceding Calvin Coolidge's landslide victory, and the vast majority of the party desires that as well.