WASHINGTON — WHEN BILL BENNETT announced his resignation as national drug czar the same day Mr. Bush announced more troops were going to the Persian Gulf, the swifter thinkers here immediately saw it as a combination shot.
The president, praising Mr. Bennett, asserted that "We're on the road to victory" against drugs and promised he would remain "on the front lines until this scourge is stopped." Mr. Bennett maintained that during his crusade, the country had turned against drugs.
The parlay was obvious: Mr. Bush, with more forces in the Middle East than he apparently knows what to do with, would appoint Mr. Bennett as theater commander. After two years, Mr. Bennett could declare victory and the boys could come home.
While that's unkind to both men, making Mr. Bennett a general without military experience is only about six degrees wilder than making anybody drug czar without police experience. What Mr. Bennett did in that job, was exhort, and he is both an experienced and vigorous exhorter.
There is even talk that he is quitting the drug job to get ready to run for national office, to challenge Mr. Bush from the right in 1992. In the wake of the presidents tax-budget performance, there is more and more assumption that somebody will, and he is just as qualified as the others being mentioned.
Of course, if Mr. Bennett should be on duty over Iraq, that would leave the right-wing field to Newt Gingrich, or Pat Buchanan, or maybe they could prop up ol' Jesse Helms again. But if Mr. Bennett is here at the super-conservative Heritage Foundation, as predicted, he will be perfectly positioned for a sacrificial run.
Remember John Ashbrook? Very few do, now, in 1972 he ran from the right against a sitting Republican, Richard Nixon. Remember Phil Crane? He's still in the House, but very few remember today that in 1980, he ran from the right against the conservative favorite, Ronald Reagan.
Those who challenge the favorite without a movement behind them usually end up as footnotes. But in the next election, while George Bush will have the official party muscle, he also will have to defend his own record in office for the first time.
The Democrats think he will be vulnerable on the rich/poor fairness issue. Mr. Bush's invitation to read his lips again after last week's elections suggests that he will give the out party still more reason to be optimistic on those grounds. If he follows a popular GOP interpretation of those returns, it will be hard for anybody to run to his right.
By that analysis, Tuesday's results showed that voters across the nation were in an anti-tax mood. They also showed again, as in Mr. Helms's North Carolina victory, that the issue of civil rights cuts for the conservatives if cast as a matter of quotas rather than fairness.
Seen that way, Mr. Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 was a political asset. It would help if the same bill should pass again so he could veto it again and with one more Democrat in the Senate, his veto should be overridden. Don't expect that; the president is not the only Republican who examined those returns, and those who abandoned him on the override this fall will think twice about doing it again.
If, however, Mr. Bush should be overcome by conscience and sign such a bill, if he should moderate and remember his kindergentler mantra, then a flock of those to his right are going to squeal in protest.
By his record, Mr. Bennett is as qualified as any to run on the issues that loom for 1992. Before he entered politics, he was a protege of John Silber on the faculty of Boston University. As a right-wing Democrat and head of the National Humanities Center, he co-wrote an attack on affirmative action. As head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he refused to submit required racial breakdowns of his staff. He supports a school-prayer amendment. When he became secretary of Education, he pushed federal aid to church schools. Finding that too hot a subject, he dropped it and spoke up for a return to basic education, student discipline and an all-out war on drugs in schools.
Now he will be free to tell it the way so many voters think it is, to rail again against "reverse discrimination." That happens be the way Jesse Helms and David Duke tell it, to, but Mr. Bennett can make a much better case that his version is racially clean. That he is politically eager has been public knowledge here for at least five years. That the issues would turn his way so conveniently has been obvious for only five days. He may be our next John Ashbrook.