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Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2000 /11 Adar I, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Fear of victory -- NOT SINCE all those new faces began showing up at Republican caucuses to vote for Eisenhower in 1952 has the party's establishment been so upset.

Who are all these people barging into our club, Taft Republicans wanted to know -- Democrats in Republican clothing? Didn't these people know this was a restricted neighborhood? What right did these interlopers have to pronounce themselves Republicans? Social climbers!

A party that, at least in these Southern latitudes, could have caucused in a phone booth was now having to swing open the doors, set up chairs, let the light in and welcome folks regardless of their political pedigree. Damned inconvenient. And uncomfortable. Old habits and expectations were being upset. What would happen to respected traditions like defeat? Frightening as it was to contemplate, voting Republican might even become popular. Intolerable.

By 1952, the GOP had grown accustomed to losing presidential elections for 20 years. It took a kind of pride in it. Every four years, delegates would gather at a national convention to admire the pristine purity of the party's principles, like visitors to a museum of natural history gazing in awe at the skeleton of a dinosaur. And now their role as the country's permanent opposition was in jeopardy. With every primary, a once Grand Old (and cozy little) Party was being swamped by these nouveau Republicans.

Where would it all end? With independents and Democrats flocking to a Republican candidate, he might actually win in the fall, and then where would the party be? It might actually have to lead rather than react. And reaction had become a comfortable habit, like defeat.

There are so many consolations for losing. One can sit around sifting the finer points of one's principles, purifying them till only the truest of the true believers are left to write eloquent protestations in little magazines nobody reads. It was a political heaven: no responsibility and no need to compromise, only carp.

And now all this was about to be taken away. Even after their leader had to endorse this upstart general, Senator Taft's more faithful followers vowed they never would. They were not about to sully their principles by winning.

Once again the GOP's powerbrokers are warning against the dangers of nominating a popular, maybe an irresistible, candidate. John McCain, they say, is only attracting independents and Democrats who will abandon the party once they've determined its presidential candidate. That's the best argument the establishment's anointed candidate can muster in his attempt to stem the tide of unwanted voters flocking to the Republican banner in South Carolina. To others, those new adherents may be converts. To W., they're a fifth column.

Only a few months ago, it was the establishment's candidate who was going to give the GOP a human face, and make it the party of Compassionate Conservatism. But while he said the words, John McCain was transmitting the message. And it's being received by a whole new generation that may never have been much interested in Republicans before, or even in politics.

What is it about John McCain that's attracting all these new Republicans? Maybe it's his ability to rise above the usual political shibboleths and strategies. Call it character. Goodness, can politics actually be about something besides self-interest? Where's the appeal to class, to ideology, to getting more for Us and giving less to Them?

Here's somebody talking about sacrifice and idealism, and what Americans can do for their country rather than what their government can do for them. And lots of Americans are responding. What a novel appeal, as if politics were a noble endeavor, and not just about who gets what from whom.

John McCain can't seem to have a conversation on the campaign trail without making contact, winning converts, bringing something alive that has seemed dormant for so long. One hesitates to use the word, it's been so abused for so long, but maybe what he represents is patriotism -- something beyond self, beyond party, beyond what have become the usual calculations. Rare as it has become in politics, maybe what we're seeing is idealism.

Years ago, after the Republicans had managed to lose still another election on principle, Whittaker Chambers wrote William F. Buckley a letter in which he foresaw what would happen to this party that had lost interest in appealing to a broad base of Americans:

"The Republican Party will simply become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel.''

John McCain is trying to drag his party out of that dark little shop -- by the sheer force of his personality. And by his candor, his character, his maverick instincts, his individuality and informality. And people are responding.

It's possible that Americans would rather disagree here and there with a candidate they trust rather than agree completely with a candidate they don't. Who knew what Ike's politics were when he was nominated for president, or even if he had any? But his invincible good will was palpable. So is John McCain's.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate