JESSE HELMS'S eleventh-hour resort to open racism in his North Carolina Senate campaign may have provided Republicans the tool they've been seeking to keep Reagan Democrats on board in 1992.
William Bennett made that clear at his first meeting with reporters as President Bush's choice for next GOP chairman. The ex-drug czar commended as "perfectly legitimate" Helms' TV ad showing white hands crumpling a rejection slip for a job that went to someone of a minority race, presumably because of civil rights laws. He'd love to debate Democrats on the subject, he said.
Ronald Reagan wooed and won two traditional Democratic bastions -- white Southerners and blue-collar Northern ethnics -- with subtly racist electioneering, augmented by patriotic, religious and anti-tax appeals. He used code words like "welfare queens," but his meaning was clear. Bush's reversal on taxes and the collapse of the Soviet empire let most of the air out of that GOP balloon. Nor did it help when he battled Democratic efforts to shift back to the rich some of the tax burden Reagan had transferred to the middle class under the guise of rescuing Social Security.
Bush had managed to hold the Reagan coalition together in 1988, largely through a spurious no-new-taxes pledge and cynical manipulation of racial and crime fears. Lacking Reagan's personal appeal, he relied on TV symbolism to get the message across in such ploys as Willie Horton and flag factories.
But now, with the economy souring and middle incomes static, some working-class Americans have begun to wonder what they're doing in a party consecrated to the interests of the rich and powerful. That raises for GOP tacticians their scariest nightmare: the prospect of the electorate voting along income lines.
The obvious antidote is to drive a wedge between middle class and poor. In this country, that task is simplified by the palpable fact of race. Since Democrats from Franklin Roosevelt's time have been the movers and shakers on civil rights, Republicans have a natural edge in exploiting white resentments.
As long as an expanding economy provided enough goodies to share, their payoff was confined to the South, but when the pie started shrinking, white middle-class antagonism toward programs aimed at improving the lot of the urban black underclass spread throughout the nation. Now, though it's clear that blacks on the bottom rung will never recover from 200 years of discrimination without some tilt in their favor, any job or promotion preferment is bitterly resented.
President Bush recently vetoed a civil rights bill that included modest affirmative action -- a move Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia presciently termed a "Bush-Helms axis" to embrace "the New Extremism of exploiting racism for political gain."
Ultimately, it will be Bush's call whether to unleash pit bull Bennett & Co. To do so would violate his personal beliefs and innate decency, but he proved in 1988 he prefers winning to scruple. A racist campaign is entirely possible, and would weaken the increasingly fragile social fabric of the nation.