WASHINGTON — The Republicans gave themselves a turkey for Thanksgiving. And Democrats should give thanks.
By appointing ex-drug czar William J. Bennett as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, President George Bush and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu have made a terrible political mistake. They have misread the election returns, misunderstood the electorate and completely underestimated the vital role Lee Atwater skillfully developed as chairman, before his unfortunate battle with cancer forced him to take a lower profile in national Republican affairs. For reasons of personalty and strategy, they have put the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Taking personality first, to replace Atwater--if such an adept person exists--the GOP needed someone experienced in the arts of strategy, diplomacy (yes, Atwater could be diplomatic when it was called for) and public relations. Politics is a game of touch. In unifying and directing an unruly party, the skills needed are more often required on the telephone than on television. And these talents more often call for a soft word than a loud bellow. Bennett, alas, has a big mouth and, before the year is out, I am willing to wager he will stick his foot in it.
But it is on the level of strategy that the appointment stumbles badly. Republicans need quality party leadership to confront two serious and somewhat contradictory problems quickly and decisively. First, they must stop the intraparty warfare which started when the President reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge. This has alienated the right wing and set the party of Reaganism ideologically adrift.
Second, the "fairness" issue--used so skillfully by the Democrats in the budget debate--has, for the first time in more than a decade, begun to help the Democrats appeal to the great middle class that was once their base. Republicans in the '80s, particularly Bush in '88, appealed to the middle by running a blatantly negative campaign against the Democrats, using communism, taxes and crime as their weapons.
Well, it is the '90s now; communism is dead and taxes as an issue have been kicked away by Bush. Although Willie Horton (a.k.a. crime and drugs) is still a burning issue, ponder this: When party chief Bennett goes into any city to campaign, the first thing Democrats should tell him about is the casuality list of people who have been killed by drugs in their city over the last few years when he was drug czar.
Now, in fairness to Bennett, he is partially capable of dealing with the GOP intraparty struggle. The right loves him and will listen to him. The party mainstream--particularly the many new moderate Republican governors elected in 1990--does not completely buy into the right-wing message Bennett espouses, but will probably tolerate him.
The problem is that the people they represent--middle-class voters--in many cases flat out reject the message. For example, Atwater recognized the political downside of the anti-abortion rights rhetoric when he declared that the Republican Party was a "big tent," with room for different views on abortion. Bennett's tent is going to be much smaller. So being a right-wing spokesperson for the party runs counter to the mood of the middle class and particularly their economic concerns. (The GOP can no longer blame Jimmy Carter for this Republican recession.)
Other problems will haunt the GOP because of the Bennett appointment. Resolving the nation's drug epidemic was also Bennett's responsibility. When he resigned, he declared victory in the war on drugs. This is the domestic equivalent the late Sen. George Aiken's proposal, in 1966, to declare victory in Vietnam and get out. In regard to education--Bennett is also an ex-secretary of education--does any one believe the educational system is better now than before Bennett held that office?
Democrats should not underestimate Bennett, however. He is a mean fighter. His first discussion with reporters, after the leak about his new position surfaced, was a defense of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and his racially inflammatory commercials during the recent Senate campaign. Bennett also proudly referred to his own race-baiting book, "Counting by Race." Just the right kind of guy when the country needs healing, not division. Come on!
Bush promises us a kinder and gentler nation. Yet he gives his party an articulate attack dog. The Republican Party needs a healer, someone who can deftly patch up the stark divisions. Yet they get a never-elected, recently Republicanized demagogue of differences. Republican candidates need a person in touch with the body politic and how people are faring with the country's creeping economic recession. Yet the President hires a bully--effective at diatribes of liberal-bashing and at pontificating on authoritarian traditional values. Those are platforms of the past. They are not the skills of building, mending and politicking that the GOP needs to take them from the present to the future.
One last point. Bennett wants to be President. There is an old political rule of thumb that you never appoint a party chairman who wants to be President while the incumbent is running for reelection. Sununu, you will rue the day.
But as a Democrat, it is only in the spirit of the holiday season that leads me to write about how the Republican Party could be more effective. To my own party, I offer the holiday hope that we take full advantage of the gifts brought to us by the appointment of the new GOP chairman. Christmas has come early for the Democrats this year.