From Willie Horton's success, Republicans look toward '92

Gunther Wertheimer

April 26, 1991|By Gunther Wertheimer

UNCENSORED images of the Kurdish tragedy have diminished the euphoria many Americans felt after the victory over Iraq. Nonetheless, Republican strategists looking toward the 1992 elections plan to exploit that triumph to retain the White House and recapture the Senate.

They are not likely to be entirely successful. But the goal already is creating a tone that bodes ill for the political battles ahead. If you thought 1988 was a dirty campaign, you ain't seen nothing.

Willie Horton and the flag were the essential features of the GOP's 1988 strategy. Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes made Horton, the paroled murderer, Michael S. Dukakis' running mate. Appropriating the flag, the Bush campaigners "stripped the bark" of Dukakis and his legitimacy as an American. Atwater, confronting death, apologized. His successors seem unwilling to let go of a winning combination.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, set the stage. He branded Democrats opposed to the war resolution "appeasement-before-country liberals." Within days of the end of the war, he accused the opposition of trying to deprive Republicans of the spoils of victory. "As you know," he said, "the Baath party in Iraq and the Democratic Party in the United States are both working on their domestic agendas to make us forget the war."

John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, followed. Asked by a "Today" host on March 7, "Isn't there something sort of unsavory" about attacking Democrats "who voted their conscience?" he replied: "Oh, I think the country's going to have to make a decision on people's records in the election process, and I can't believe that the Democrats who fought really on a party basis to resist the president are going to expect that individual candidates may not bring that up. We're not going to bring it up at the White House, but I can't believe that they're going to expect everyone to ignore the vote they cast on the most important issue this country has had to deal with in about 40 years."

Clayton K. Yeutter, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, kept the theme alive. On April 17, in his first news conference after replacing Lee Atwater, he accused the Democrats of "isolationism." The Democrats' January vote was "one that is likely to be recalled over and over again by American voters as they evaluate candidates."

If Willie Horton personified the Republicans' charge that Democrats are "soft on crime," Saddam Hussein will be hoisted on the Democrats' back as the token of their "weakness on defense." Symbols, not reasoned evaluations of the efficacy of force to solve international problems, will be the content of political discourse -- if present plans stay on track.

The brightest symbol of all is the flag. George Bush's visit to the New Jersey flag factory during the 1988 campaign is unforgettable. Crafted by Roger Ailes, Republican impresario, that production and lesser imitations helped wipe out Dukakis. Ailes now has produced CBS television's "All-Star Salute" to the home-coming troops.

Though "most people think of me as a political guy," Ailes said, he "just wanted to do something for the troops." He expected "a strong effort on the part of the print media to tear [the shows] down in a cynical fashion. . . I see nothing wrong with flag-waving. I see nothing wrong with being proud of what America did in the war. I see nothing wrong with celebrating it . . . for a year, if we want to, or 20 shows. Only the media gets upset by that kind of thing. The American people don't. They love it."

Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel) tried out the theme at a Republican Party Lincoln Day rally against incumbent Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski. "Wouldn't it be nice," he asked, "to have a member of the U.S. Senate who supports the president . . . who supports the flag?"

Mikulski is feisty enough to take care of herself. Whether her party has the ability -- or the willingness -- to take care of itself in what promises to be a down-and-dirty campaign is another question. What the Democrats should say is this:

The catastrophe in Iraq, not confined to the Kurds; the Arabian environmental disaster; the continuing difficulties of the Arab-Israeli conflict prove once again that making war is easier than securing peace. No matter how heady the military victory, the bills for the latest "splendid little war" remain unpaid.

Gunther Wertheimer is a retired Baltimore businessman.


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