Republican Shootout

December 16, 1990

In their perpetual search for enemies, Republican right-wing ideologues have chosen a most unlikely quarry: John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff. A former skinflint governor of New Hampshire best known for his contempt for Michael Dukakis and others of the liberal persuasion, Mr. Sununu got his job (a) because he engineered the Bush win in his state's 1988 primary and (b) because he was regarded as a sop to GOP conservatives who have always suspected George Bush of being a closet moderate.

Already a hate-object to many House Republicans for his role in fashioning a budget agreement that included higher taxes, Mr. Sununu is now regarded as the guy who butchered the nomination of William Bennett, the former drug czar who served for 13 memorable days as chairman-designate of the Republican National Committee.

That Mr. Sununu had a hand in Mr. Bennett's selection is now regarded as evidence of poor staff work at the White House, which first saw no conflict of interest problems in the RNC appointment and then changed its mind. The more prevalent view from the GOP far right is that Mr. Sununu quickly determined that Mr. Bennett was too obstreperous and too enamored of ideas that are anathema to the White House inner sanctum. So he had to go, a martyr to a crusade that in recent years even wondered if Reagan was Reagan.

Other than the holiday entertainment offered by this spectacle, with conservatives daring once again to dream of a 1992 challenge to President Bush, it illustrates the serious structural problems of the Republican Party. Despite its tight grip on the executive branch, the GOP has been steadily losing ground in Congress, making a perpetual minority of GOP legislators. The result is a White House branch of the party, which cannot escape the responsibility of governing, and a legislative branch that sees even a John Sununu forced into mainstream compromises with Democrats.

In 1976, the feeling of frustration resulted in Ronald Reagan's almost-successful challenge to a sitting Republican president, Gerald Ford. Will Mr. Bush, who is seen as a lineal descendant of Ford-style pragmatism, now be the target of a similar challenge? Mr. Bennett, like Mr. Reagan a former Democrat, is already being touted. Jack Kemp is always eager, should his ideological bent lead to his departure from the Cabinet. In the meantime, the Republican Party awaits a chairman to take charge of the shootout.

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