The Elephant Bucks A Maverick

PERHAPS the most disturbing of last week's election results, aside from Dan Quayle ascending to the vice presidency, was the defeat of three-term Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.). The defeat of Weicker, an iconoclast who came to national prominence in 1973 as a member of the Senate Watergate Committee, represents a loss to the GOP and to the nation.

Despite the Senator's graceful claim that his defeat represented a repudiation of his views, Weicker's loss was due less to the abilities and ideology of his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Joseph Lieberman, than to the his being abandoned and ostracized by the conservative wing of Connecticut's Republican Party, which has never been thrilled by his outspokenly liberal views. In fact, William F. Buckley Jr. and other prominent conservatives in the state bankrolled Lieberman's campaign and made it explicit that they were doing so in order to pave the way for a politician with appropriate conservative credentials to defeat Lieberman in 1992.

DURING his 18 years in the Senate, Weicker established himself as a maverick who challenged his party's leadership and its increasingly conservative slant. Weicker fought the Reagan Administration over its budget priorities and took on the GOP right wing on such issues as civil rights, abortion, school prayer and busing.

From 1983-86, while the Republicans controlled the Senate, Weicker spearheaded a wide-ranging spending bill through the Labor and Health Appropriations Subcommittee that provided more federal funding for education, healthcare programs and aid to persons with disabilities than the Reagan Administration sought. As chairman of the Small Business Committee, he kept the Reagan Administration from abolishing the Small Business Administration. And while Congress and the White House ignored the AIDS crisis, Weicker successfully led the first battle for Federal funding for research.

When Weicker proclaimed his belief that the federal government should take an active role in promoting and financing higher education at a 1987 congressional hearing, an embattled Secretary of Education William J. Bennett asked in feigned amazement, "You are a Republican?" "Longer than you," Weicker replied.

NEEDLESS to say, Weicker's refusal to toe a straight party line combined with his outspoken manner, hardly endeared him to his colleagues in the Republican Party and he was often bypassed for positions of party leadership, though he clearly had seniority. But Weicker's blustery, abrasive, and confrontational style was resented by colleagues on the other side of the aisle as well, and he was never embraced by the Democrats either, because they considered him to be unpredictable.

He also had political troubles at home. Weicker was never one to do the dirty work of cultivating constituents and local politicians for donations and support, and Lieberman successfully exploited this weakness by portraying Weicker as a "slumbering giant" who ignored local interests.

Weicker was perhaps the last prominent member of the liberal wing of the Republican Party--historically represented by Jacob Javitz, Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Mathias and other formerly prominent politicians--which has been assigned to political obscurity during the conservative-dominant Reagan years. His independence, unpredictability, and abrasiveness were an asset to the largely monolithic Republican party, which needs more of the internal dissent he provided.

Weicker, like his much-maligned conservative counterparts in the Democratic party, showed that the country's two major political parties are broad-based enough to encompass a wide range of views. Contrary to some opinions, America's political parties are not mere interest groups serving the interests of a particular region or social class. With Weicker gone, one has to wonder if this is still the case in the Republican Party, which seems more than ever concerned with preserving homogeneity and presenting a united front to the voters than with engaging in the great internal ideological debates that characterize the Democratic party.

Maverick, loner, outcast, a "voice in the woods": all these words describe a courageous, gallant senator who stuck to his principles when they were anathema to his party and to much of the nation. Weicker's forced departure proves that the Republican party, even in its triumph, is unwilling to accept opposing views, and this only limits further the number of Americans they can claim to represent.

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