SAN DIEGO - When Robert Dole accepts the presidential nomination tonight in the highlight of his political career, the tableau will show how dramatically the ground has shifted under him in the Republican Party.
Joining Dole on the podium will be the three once-unorthodox Republicans who now rank just below the Kansan in the GOP pantheon--vice presidential nominee Jack F. Kemp, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Only four years ago, none of these Capitol Hill rebels had close to such status or influence. Now, they form the epicenter of power and ideas in their party.
As he has moved toward his victory, Dole has gingerly embraced them and their support. In return, but with some hesitation, the three have pledged their loyalty. Given the independence that each has long shown and the challenges that each has waged against him, however, Dole is wise enough not to assume unfettered love or to turn his back on his former nemeses.
Only a month ago, after sharing concerns about the campaign and hatching plans during a Capitol Hill lunch meeting, they organized, with Sen. Connie Mack III of Florida, a Washington conference to spotlight the need for Dole to emphasize their mantra of economic growth. In typical fashion, Kemp blabbed to reporters about their plans before the others were ready.
Dole has surely been aware of the Capitol Hill buzz that Gingrich plans to set the legislative agenda as a quasi-prime minister under a vision-impaired chief of state. ``Newt's people irreverently see Bob Dole as a rubber stamp,'' a senior House GOP aide said. For now, at least, Dole is their unquestioned leader. But all sides face a ``learning curve,'' especially if Dole is elected, the aide added.
Dole's people are quick to dispel doubts of who's in charge and to quash suggestions that the trio will gang up on Dole. ``He will set the agenda,'' said Jim Whittinghill, a former senior Dole aide in the Senate and top House aide in the 1980s. ``As they have grown to know each other better, they have become a mutual admiration society. They have learned who he is--his integrity, his intellect, his extremely shrewd political mind. . . . You can't take a snapshot from the early 1980s and assume what will happen today.''
Still, the recent coalescing has been breathtaking. As he touted how closely they have come together under the leadership of the man he once called ``the tax collecter for the welfare state,'' Gingrich voiced a combination of brashness and disbelief about the paramount role that he and his pals have played over the past 10 pivotal days. ``Watching this all come together is beyond anyone's dreams,'' he said in an interview. ``It's our agenda modified by Bob Dole. . . . The whole party is unified around a program that we've been working on for 20 years.
``I didn't advocate the 15 per cent tax cut,'' said Gingrich, who's obviously delighted with the result. Then he was again surprised, a few days later, when ``Dole called and said that he had a great meeting with Jack Kemp'' about the vice presidency. ``Sure,'' Gingrich exclaimed.
The three second-tier leaders share remarkable similarities. Each began elective office as a House Member in the 1970s. Each, in his separate way, repeatedly challenged the Capitol Hill establishment. In a political world where respect for seniority and order was once the rule, each succeeded as an entrepreneur challenging the Establishment--in his party as well as in the House. Gingrich and Lott are in their mid-50s; Kemp appears younger than his 61 years.
First on the scene was Kemp, who transplanted his Southern California optimism to suburban Buffalo and won House election in 1970 as the nonstop-talker advocating a more positive vision for the Republican Party. His core idea of a 30 per cent tax cut was embraced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 campaign and was enacted with modest change in 1981, in what was probably the single most important legislation of the decade. ``Jack's always the quarterback,'' Gingrich said. ``He was never on defense for a half-second. . . . Jack is the great, driving missionary leader.''
To many Republicans--especially the mandarins of the tax- writing committees, including Dole, the Senate Finance Committee chairman during Reagan's first term--Kemp's voice was grating and impudent. In a 1985 incident that most Republicans prefer to forget, author Richard Ben Cramer recounted in What It Takes, Kemp, ``that blow-dried windbag,'' convinced Reagan to ``jerk the rug out'' from Dole's Senate-passed budget, which included politically lethal social security cuts. After his disappointing presidential campaign in 1988, Kemp disappeared into the bowels of the Bush Administration as Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
Unlike Kemp, Lott knew and loved Capitol Hill--beginning as the veteran aide to Democrat William M. Colmer of Mississippi, the crusty segregationist and House Rules Committee chairman, whom he succeeded in 1972 as a Republican. Lott also joined the Rules Committee, where he learned the inside moves. But Lott successfully reshaped his own party. With support from the freshmen elected as part of the Reagan Revolution, Lott in 1980 won a contest for minority whip.
Tiring of his No. 2 status in the minority party in the increasingly partisan House, Lott was elected to the Senate in 1988. Once again, he quickly and brazenly moved up the ladder, unseating in 1994 Dole's buddy, Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming as the party's whip.
With Kemp and Lott already gone from the House, that set the stage for the boldest move of all--Gingrich's one-vote victory in March 1989 for House GOP whip after Dick Cheney of Wyoming had resigned to become Defense Secretary. On the eve of his equally improbable success in orchestrating a campaign that unseated Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, on ethics charges, the former bombthrower became the party's chief floor strategist even though he had had virtually no legislative achievements since his first election in 1978.
The former military brat moved inexorably to assert control of the House GOP, leaving Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., with little choice but a graceful retirement in 1994. Then came the rush of the campaign with the Gingrich-crafted Contract With America, the end of the Democrats' 40-year-era of House control and the new high-profile Speakership.
The three allies ``remade the party in unusual ways,'' said Norman J. Ornstein, a veteran Congress-watcher at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. ``They used the power of ideas in a place where ideas have not been a top priority.''
Because House Republicans had little opportunity for more than 40 years to shape legislation, most had neither the accomplishments nor the chairmanships that typically have served as routes to formal legislative leadership, Ornstein added.
The Republicans' long years in the minority also help to explain how their leaders have differed from the Democratic barons in their dealings with Presidents. ``If a Democratic President says `Do something,' [the Democrats] will do it,'' Ornstein said. ``But I look at Newt, and the notion of being a loyal lieutenant is not intrinsic to him.''
Intriguingly, the cast of characters could leave Lott as the GOP's consensus builder. As the leader in a chamber where patience and persistence are more valued than a gavel, the Mississipian has had only two months to prove himself. But he impressed many this summer with his success in breaking the logjam on health, welfare and minimum-wage legislation that had tied the Senate in knots for months.
The most intriguing question for students of the Republican Party is whether the new GOP leaders will spend the next four years working with each other or with Bill Clinton. For all their support of Dole, the GOP's grand old man, the Kemp-Gingrich-Lott troika appears here to stay.