The hatchetman cometh Newswatch ... on politics today

Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

November 20, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- William Bennett, the retiring drug czar and former Reagan secretary of education, behaved in both of those responsible jobs as if he were a Republican political hatchetman. So it makes sense that President Bush is giving him the official title as the new GOP national chairman.

Bennett is a slasher in the old tradition of the late William E. Miller, the former party chairman selected by Barry Goldwater to be his running mate in 1964 because, as Goldwater so typically put it, "he drives Lyndon Johnson nuts." In his two jobs in the Reagan and Bush administrations, Bennett showed he was more mouth than manager, so it is not all that surprising that Bush would pick him to be his chief Democrat-basher.

The role of national chairman for a party in control of the White House is customarily limited because the man in the Oval Office is the recognized party, as well as national, leader. But in the case of a president like George Bush who must share power with a Congress controlled by the opposition party, it is not smart for him to go around -- as Bush did this fall -- kidney-punching members of that opposition party.

With the current party chairman, Lee Atwater, no wallflower himself when it comes to hammering the opposition, indisposed fighting disabling cancer, the GOP has been without an unabashedly partisan motor-mouth to relieve Bush of excessive partisanship, and to draw partisan fire from him. Bennett fills the bill, and may also mollify for a time the party's right wing, increasingly snapping at Bush's heels.

Bush advisers involved in Bennett's selection recognized there are three key aspects to the chairman's job -- spokesman, fund-raiser and party-builder. Atwater excelled at all three, and when he was forced to the sidelines a makeshift arrangement evolved. Former RNC political director Charlie Black, a very credible but soft-spoken operative, took on the spokesman's role. Mary Matalin, Atwater's efficient chief of staff, handled the organizing aspects. But the fund-raising chore clearly suffered from Atwater's absence, on the rubber-chicken circuit and in the chairman's office. Bennett will be a hot ticket in this regard as well as party spokesman, with Matalin or someone of her ilk handling the tough organizational chore.

Bennett is to be elected at the next Republican National Committee meeting in January, with Atwater named "general chairman." During his illness, he has been discussing strategy -- with the president and the RNC regularly and will continue to do so. He attended a brainstorming session just before the midterm elections along with other leading political strategists of the administration -- White House chief of staff John Sununu, media consultant Roger Ailes and pollster Bob Teeter.

Bennett, who has never met an open microphone he doesn't like, can be counted on to give a much harder partisan edge to the political debate in the critical two years leading up to the 1992 presidential election. That fact may well undermine hope of broadening the party's base by courting blacks and other longtime Democrats disillusioned with their own party. But it may also lift the GOP out of the doldrums delivered upon it by Bush's muddled performance on the domestic front over recent months.

Bennett, a converted Democrat, has developed the zeal of a true believer in his new party, repeatedly wrestling with Democrats over budgets and priorities in his education and anti-drug jobs, calling Democratic congressional criticism "garbage" and never hesitating to take on prominent Democrats with biting personal attacks. And that was when he was functioning as an agency head, not as a designated hit man as he will be in his party post.

Bennett's role as drug czar didn't keep him, either, from hitting the campaign trail hard and often this fall, in 21 states in behalf of 31 Republican candidates. If the man has presidential ambitions, as many Republican politicians believe, it certainly won't hurt him within the party to become point man against the Democrats and an effective fund-raiser around the country.

But he has demonstrated a sure talent as a polarizer as well, and on occasion for turning on fellow-Republicans who disagree with him. So there is always the risk that Bush in making Bennett the party's national chairman is creating a political monster. But, if the president wants to raise the partisan decibel level in the country, he has picked the right guy.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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