Philadelphia In 2000: Like 1948?

Although the democratic convention in Los Angeles is still six months away, it is not too soon to start yawning. But when Republicans convene in Philadelphia, brotherly love may be as scarce as it was when last a party convention was held there.

The Democratic nomination contest is all but over because Bill Bradley has difficulty attracting Democrats. Bradley has Adlai Stevenson's earnestness without the leavening wit that made it palatable. (Asked his opinion of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the middlebrow exponent of "the power of positive thinking," Stevenson quipped, "I find Saint Paul appealing but Peale appalling.") Bradley's last three elections suggest that he has severe limitations as a candidate for office. Before losing in Iowa and New Hampshire, his most recent election was a decade ago, when he barely won a third Senate term, beating the then unknown Christine Whitman by just 3 percent, even though he spent $12.73 per vote against her 87 cents.

In 1968 there were just 15 primaries and the eventual Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, won none of them. However, the party's muscular interests could deliver in the hotel suites. Those interests have adapted to the era of 45 primaries. Bradley is discovering that it is virtually impossible to win the Democratic nomination when your rival has the backing of the Democratic nominating electorate's two huge factions--organized labor (especially public-employees unions--government itself as an interest group) and African-Americans.

The Republican contest is at a roiling boil because George W. Bush attracts only Republicans, whereas John McCain appeals also to Democrats and independents. Furthermore, the three most important Republican primaries before the 13 on March 7--New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan--are open to non-Republicans. In the biggest March 7 primary, California's, anyone can vote for any candidate in the popularity poll, but the ballots are coded so only registered Democrats' and Republicans' votes are counted in the allocation of their respective parties' delegates. So McCain could beat Bush in the popular vote, but lose in the allocation of delegates. Bush would be badly wounded by such a Pyrrhic victory.

The selection of the Republican nominee will be heavily, perhaps decisively, influenced by Democrats, independents and the liberal national media. In politics, people sort themselves out and form parties on the basis of shared sensibilities as well as policy agreements. To understand why many Republicans find McCain's candidacy grating, consider one example of the populist sensibility that permeates his campaign.

His tax plan calls for modest cuts tailored to make the income tax more progressive. And the government's lost revenues would be partially recouped with revenues raised by closing what he calls "loopholes." One of his proposed closings would eliminate "deductions for donations of appreciated property beyond its actual cost." This sounds dry as dust, but would have a remarkably anticonservative effect.

The tax code currently encourages a form of charitable giving that is extremely important to many charities, churches and educational institutions. Individuals give stocks, works of art or other assets, and are able to deduct the full current value of the assets. If a person buys a stock for $1,000 and donates it after it has appreciated to $10,000, he gets a $10,000 deduction. If he donates a painting that he bought for $20,000 but has appreciated to $50,000, he gets a $50,000 deduction.

Under McCain's proposal, the giver would get only a $20,000 deduction for the painting. Assuming that he is in the 39.6 percent tax bracket, his gift of a $50,000 painting would get him a tax saving of only $7,920 instead of $19,800. Under McCain's proposal, if a person bought stock for $1,000 and it appreciated to $10,000, he would get only a $1,000 deduction, which in the 39.6 percent bracket would be worth $396 rather than $3,960 under current law.

McCain has fashioned an almost perfectly anticonservative proposal--a tax increase that would diminish private support for non-governmental institutions that make civil society vibrant and reduce dependence on government. Now, note the defense of this proposal by McCain's spokesman, Howard Opinsky: "Wealthy Americans shouldn't get a tax write-off for contributing a fancy painting or an overvalued stock while middle-class Americans are in need of a tax cut."

McCain's campaign, which is cocksure that it knows when stocks are "overvalued" and when paintings are too "fancy," is fueled by such populist rhetoric. Such rhetoric reeks of ignorance, envy, resentment and a thirst for class conflict. It is precisely what conservatism most regrets about contemporary liberalism.

A candidate's aides generally are accurate barometers of the climate in his campaign, and in his mind. Opinsky's words radiate McCainism, whose namesake does not just say campaign financing should be changed, he says everyone in politics is corrupt. McCain does not just say Bush's larger tax cut is too large, he says it is wrong because it gives comfort to "the rich." McCain does not just have disagreements with the right-to-life movement, he says its democratically elected leaders are corrupt people who have "turned a cause into a business."

It is not yet probable but it is increasingly thinkable that McCain will be nominated and the Republican Party will be redefined, with populism supplanting conservatism. If so, the Philadelphia convention will resemble the last convention held there, which splintered while nominating President Truman in 1948. McCain's theory may be that he, like Truman, can win without elements of his party. If he is nominated, his theory will be tested.