When it rains, it pours. For social and economic conservatives, the torrent of bad news this summer has been relentless: President Bush's cave-in on government funding of embryonic stem-cell research. The White House capitulation on affirmative action. Bipartisan support for a gargantuan education spending bill. Republican flip-flop-flipping on global warming. Kowtowing to China. Pandering to illegal aliens. Drip, drip, drip.
And now, longtime conservative stalwart Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., has formally announced his retirement plans. Love him or hate him, Sen. Helms never waffled. You knew where he stood: against federal subsidies for vulgar art, in defense of the Boy Scouts, opposed to foreign aid and communist dictatorships, in support of dismantling government racial preferences, against all forms of gun control, and for the protection of unborn life.
Incurably stubborn and fiercely independent, the man nicknamed "Senator No" did what he thought was right -- not just what was good for his party. He didn't care whose toes he stepped on, and he earned enmity and respect on both sides of the aisle for it.
The same cannot be said for the leading GOP candidate to fill Sen. Helms' shoes. Local and national party officials say Elizabeth Dole is the front-runner for the 2002 Republican nomination. Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, chairman of the Republican senatorial committee, gushed that he "would love to have Elizabeth Dole out there." According to the Associated Press, White House power broker Karl Rove has reportedly courted Mrs. Dole for months for the North Carolina seat -- "even though she hasn't lived in the state for several decades."
The best that can be said for Mrs. Dole is that unlike her Democrat counterpart, political wife-turned-politician Hillary Clinton, at least she was born in the state where she plans to run. Beyond that flimsy geographic qualification, however, there is precious little to support a Dole candidacy. The same fundamental problem that plagued her presidential bid remains: She has no ideas, no issues, and no motivating principles except the eternal preservation of her political viability. Instead, she and GOP strategists in Washington are relying on her personality, chromosomes, celebrity status and ideological squishiness to vault her to victory.
On guns, she has echoed Hillary Clinton's call for a ban on semi-automatic firearms, restrictions on ammunition and mandatory trigger locks. Mrs. Dole sides with Sarah Brady in opposing laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons. On abortion, she is an artful dodger. Although she has claimed (rather briskly) on a few occasions that she is "pro-life," she repeatedly evaded questions on her position during her failed presidential bid. On affirmative action, she earned cheers from the Left for championing 10 percent set-aside contracts for minorities during her tenure as Reagan's Transportation Secretary and for declaring a jihad against the purported "glass ceiling" for women in the corporate world while serving as Bush the First's Labor Secretary.
Mrs. Dole's embrace of Big Nannyism during both the Reagan and Bush administrations belies any claim that she is an economic conservative. She forced car manufacturers to install brake lights in rear windows. She opposed Reagan by supporting the Carter-era air-bag mandate, which has killed more than 100 children and women. She championed a federal ban on drinking alcohol for adults up to 24 years old. And she supported one of the biggest wastes of taxpayer dollars, the federal Job Training Partnership Act.
Some members of the GOP establishment argue that Mrs. Dole's star power and "moderate" makeup make her a perfect candidate at a time when the party needs every Republican it can get in its uphill battle to recapture the Senate majority. But Dole's Beltway backers should be careful what they wish for, lest they end up with Jim Jeffords in a skirt.
For conservatives, it's yet another depressing raincloud on the horizon. Say goodbye to Senator No -- and hello to Senator Whatever.