PHILADELPHIA -- There is no doubt that a vast majority of delegates to the Republican National Convention would have liked their party on record for abolishing the federal Department of Education. That they did not do so tells much about the mood of the GOP three months before the presidential election.
The department, bursting with liberal educationists, is detested by the Republican rank and file. Some delegates tried to restore to the party platform the 1996 plank calling for abolition, even though George W. Bush opposed it. But many more, desperate to prevent Al Gore from entering the White House next January, were willing to give their nominee anything he wanted.
This is the latest turn in the fascinating relationship played out every four years between the party's elites and what they call "unwashed" Republicans. Elected officials and financial contributors have positions of power at national conventions but are often thwarted by ordinary citizens elected as delegates, whose views make the GOP a truly conservative party. This year, however, ideology is trumped by dedication to the election of the governor of Texas.
Nothing better demonstrates this than the Education Department issue. Bob Dole's clumsy call for abolition in 1996 is viewed by the Republican elite as contributing to his forlorn performance as presidential candidate. The word was passed from Austin to lay off in this year's platform. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, platform committee chairman, is a famous education reformer and regards the federal department as part of the problem. Nevertheless, committed to Bush's desires, he removed the 1996 call for abolition.
Still, it was not easy. A clear majority of a platform subcommittee Friday wanted to "phase out" the department but had to be content with "progressive limitation." Such efforts were beaten in the full committee Saturday when Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the platform co-chairman, noted that the 1996 language was misinterpreted by Democrats as being "against education, not the Education Department." Nor was Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the 1996 platform chairman, successful in urging that education be returned to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Clashes between leadership and rank and file at every Republican convention I have attended for the past 40 years were minimized this year. Not only was there a disinclination by conservatives to make trouble for the Bush campaign. For its part, the Bush campaign avoided meaningless disputes that candidate Dole provoked four years ago. When agents of social conservative action groups read the first draft of the Bush-endorsed platform Thursday night, they could find no cause for complaint.
Bush managers used the unwashed against the elites in killing an essentially unworkable reform of the presidential primary election (the Delaware Plan) that had been four years in the making by the Republican National Committee (RNC). Such schemes devised by RNC members, many of whom are financial donors removed from the political grass roots, are invariably overruled by the convention's rules committee, which is dominated by grass-roots delegates.
Bush chief strategist Karl Rove sent signals weeks ago that under cover of neutrality, the campaign was opposed to the Delaware Plan. "This is a cross between student government and stupidity," another Bush adviser told me. "Most of them (the RNC members) have never been involved in a campaign."
With that attitude revealed Friday, the rules committee voted down the reform by 66 to 33. Nor did Bush operatives lift a finger as the committee's rank and file shouted down a proposal by the RNC to give it "flexibility" to alter primary election rules between conventions.
This activity was conducted through Saturday amidst massive inattention by the news media and the general public, while convention managers have concocted a presentation intended to appeal to non-Republican voters. The conservative platform -- including an untouched anti-abortion plank -- contrasts with the convention's soft-and-fuzzy image for the nation.
The alliance between the unwashed and the presidential nominee whose name used to be synonymous with Republican elitism may not last longer than Nov. 7. If Bush loses, upheaval inside the party will be intense. If he wins, grass-roots activists will be watching what he really does to the despised Department of Education once campaign posturing is no longer necessary.