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Ashbrook Shrugged

On the Right

By E.j. Dionne

DRIVE DOWN ANY street in Manchester, New Hampshire, and you're likely to spot a neat and quietly handsome billboard bearing the words: "Ashbrook--Responsible Republican." To the left of this inscription is a white arrow in a blue field. The arrow is pointing to left. Across the arrow is a bright red slash. The meaning of it all? "No Left Turn!"

That, of course, is what Congressman John M. Ashbrook's campaign for President is all about. The Ohio Republican, long a hero of the right wing and a maverick in his own party, believes that Richard Nixon has abandoned the goals he set for himself and the country in 1968. "Restore the '68 Nixon by voting for the '72 Ashbrook," say his supporters. Specifically, Ashbrook attacks Nixon for going to China and selling Taiwan down the river, for running three consecutive deficit budgets, for proposing a "massive" family assistance program, and for sinning against the free market by instituting wage and price controls.

Ashbrook is not getting too far in New Hampshire. He has the support of ultra-conservative William Loeb's fabled Manchester Union Leader, but lately the paper has been giving more coverage to the fiestier campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, a Democrat. According to one long-time observer of New Hampshire politics, Ashbrook has given the leadership of his campaign over to the "lunatic fringe" of the state's G.O.P. The polls give him only five per cent of the vote against liberal Pete McCloskey's 12 per cent and Nixon's 69 per cent.

Despite all this, Ashbrook's campaign is very important. The quiet and thoughtful congressional veteran is standing up for a rightist doctrine which turned on Republicans in San Francisco in 1964 and except for the organizational prowess of Nixon may well have given the G.O.P. nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1968. Supporters of this doctrine are for an economy free from control and against power politics diplomacy which supposedly furthers American interests at the expense of our "friends" in Taiwan and Saigon.

However conservative Richard Nixon's policies are--in the sense that they seek to preserve the present distribution of power in America--they are not the policies of the old Republican Right. The New York Times pegged the President correctly when it editorialized on January 31:

In its abandonment of outmoded conservative doctrine, the Nixon Administration had moved much more swiftly and thoroughly than did the Eisenhower Administration.... After the Nixon Administration's record, Republican candidates can no longer inveigh against big government, budget deficits, government subsidies, or federal regulation of the economy.

The Nixon ideology is essentially the ideology of liberal Democrats of the 1950s and early '60s with a few alterations. On the negative side, Nixon shows less willingness to prosecute corporations for acting against the public interest than did Democrats--although here the old Democrats provide us with no shining model. He shows less respect for the civil liberties of dissidents--but the Truman Administration looked good only in comparison to Joe McCarthy. On the other hand, he has broken away from the free market, visited Peking, and proposed the principle of a guaranteed annual income. However hedged these moves may be, they are hardly in the tradition of Barry Goldwater--despite the Arizona Senator's support of Nixon against the Ashbrook challenge. Gary Wills wrote in Nixon Agonistes that the President has become more of a reformist than a rightist ideologue. His administration is proving Wills right.

AND SO Ashbrook runs. He certainly will lose and probably will not even make a strong showing in either New Hampshire or Florida. This doesn't mean that the right wing is dead, but it indicates that many old right wing issues may die before too long. "It is true that in the course of history one after another political position drops from the scene," notes William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review mournfully. The magazine is supporting Ashbrook because it still cherishes these beliefs which Buckley and Co. fear are disappearing, and because "John Ashbrook has raised them on his banner, so that the nation is able to look at them at least once more."

Ashbrook has made the elections--and more specifically the Republican primaries--a lot more important. He has chosen the path of revolt against an electoral process without choices and against certain manifestations of state power. For all these things, one must respect him. But given the fact that his campaign is going nowhere, and that the scions of the right--Barry Goldwater, John Tower, Strom Thurmond--are sticking with Nixon, Ashbrook may be relegated to Herbert Hoover-land as a man who stood up for an idea even after its friends had given it up for dead.

WHERE DOES this leave Nixon? He has emerged from his old conservatism into the position of a Wall Street lawyer, concerned with preserving the status quo, but neither entirely sure how to do it, nor particularly concerned with the ideology of the means. On one hand, he proposes the Family Assistance Plan and Revenue Sharing, but on the other encourages school resegregation and the Justice Department's trampling on civil liberties.

Compared to Nixon, Ashbrook looks good in one sense precisely because the Buckeye Congressman is highly principled (or at least highly ideological). The fact that he will do so poorly in New Hampshire is an indication that Rightist ideology is not now--and perhaps never was-- the motivating force behind the Republican voter. Scratch a Republican, and you will find not the renowned old lady in tennis shoes, but rather the aforementioned Wall Street lawyer.

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