WASHINGTON -- Whenever one of the national political parties falls on hard times, it's predictable that a new organization will spring up designed to put the losing party onto the correct path to resurrection.
That was the case in 1985 when moderate and conservative Democrats, weary of the New Deal retread message conveyed to the electorate by 1984 presidential nominee Walter Mondale and convinced the party had to address the needs of middle-class voters more effectively, formed the Democratic Leadership Council.
Among the charter members were Rep. Dick Gephardt, its first chairman and now the House Majority Leader, Sens. Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, John Breaux and Al Gore and a number of governors including one Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The group persevered through 1988, when Gephardt sought and failed to win the Democratic nomination and another liberal, Michael Dukakis, took the party generally down the same path, to defeat again. In 1992, the DLC succeeded in the election of members Clinton and Gore.
And now, the Republicans are feeling the need to set their party on a corrective course. One result is a new political think tank called Project for the Republican Future, created by William Kristol, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and the intellectual guide for that oftentimes loose cannon.
Kristol was thoroughly disillusioned well before the 1992 election by what he saw as an ideologically rudderless Bush administration. "It was pretty clear by late 1990 and early 1991," he says now, "that the Republican Party needed intellectual rejuvenation, and the '92 campaign just confirmed that."
Kristol was among those behind the scenes who pressed without much success for President George Bush to define a vision for the post-1992 years to give voters a reason to grant him another four years in office. When Bush lost, Kristol began to turn his attention to that need for party rejuvenation, and his new think tank is the product. "There would have been less urgency," he says, "if there had been any compelling message in the '92 campaign, or in the first months of '93."
Clearly, Kristol does not believe that the Republican leadership in Congress has conveyed such a message in the first year of opposition to Clinton, first stonewalling him on his deficit-reduction package and then providing the votes he needed to win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement. More recently, Kristol has deplored GOP tinkering with the health care system in response to Clinton's effort to reform it drastically. The system, he says, is basically sound and Republicans should focus on killing the Clinton proposals and then set about any repairs needed.
The new organization, unlike the broad membership DLC, is intended as a small clearinghouse for conservative ideas generated by other think tanks and conservative Republican officeholders. An example is the work of Michigan Gov. John Engler, who scrapped the state property tax as the chief financing weapon for the public school system and is engineering an alternative through his legislature. Kristol says his group will offer "one-stop shopping" with such ideas for conservative candidates.
While other conservative think tanks are busy advancing policies and proposals, he says, the scholars in them often "don't have a political strategy" for making them happen, and that is what his new group, in the fashion of the DLC, is setting out to do. Arguing for killing the Clinton health package rather than revising it and thus buying into it is an example, Kristol says.
"The traditional Republican way, simply opposing Democratic initiatives or proposing timid alternatives, is insufficient," the group's statement of principle says. Its goal, it says, is "to replace the still-dominant agenda of contemporary liberalism with a bold and principled conservatism."
George Bush ridiculed the notion of "the vision thing" -- having an agenda for the future -- and Kristol says that "without reliving the past" of Bush's downfall his group intends to put one in place for consideration by whichever Republican runs in 1996. ,, "The New Deal was an agenda that FDR found in place, he didn't create it," he says. "I don't know who our FDR is, but I hope we have one."