Republicans have consistently under-estimated David Duke. Now that he is the Republican nominee for governor of Louisiana, they've got to do something about him. He is not just your garden variety Southern conservative. He is a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and founder of the Nazi-sympathizing National Association for the Advancement of White People. Unless President Bush, Vice President Quayle and others come to the aid of the Democratic nominee, former Gov. Edwin Edwards, Governor Duke may show up at the Republican National Convention next year with all necessary credentials.
It is not enough to say, as Republican National Committee Chairman Clayton Yeutter said Monday, "We simply do not have a horse in that race today." That sort of even-handedness helps David Duke. The only thing worse would be supporting a write-in campaign in behalf of defeated Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer, which has been suggested. That would drain anti-Duke votes from Governor Edwards. Many Democrats regard supporting the raffish Edwin Edwards as a bitter pill. Republicans understandably hate the idea. But it is the only way to defeat David Duke.
President Bush needs to work actively to defeat Mr. Duke. Realistically, that means backing Mr. Edwards, a move that would counter Democratic charges that he exploited the Willie Horton issue to inflame racial feelings in the 1988 election. Governor Roemer, a recent convert to the GOP who lost to Mr. Duke in the Louisiana race, put it bluntly: "The racially divisive political climate is rooted in Ronald Reagan, and now [President Bush] has got to do something about it."
For the president to go less than all-out to defeat David Duke would be a disgrace and a failure of leadership. Mr. Bush should explain how much his racial and social views differ from David Duke's. He should explain that there is not a continuum from conservatism to Nazism.
A final word. David Duke got to this point in part because so many responsible public officials have refused to debate honestly the issues he is now running with -- for example, social and moral breakdown in urban slums and black families. We don't mean just Republicans have been derelict, either. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan tried to start a debate on this issue 20 years ago, his Democratic colleagues shut him up. Things have gotten worse in the cities since then. Things will be even worse 20 years from now if there is not a responsible political debate or, preferably, dialogue beginning now. Without such responsible attention to the problem, there will probably be a lot more David Dukes in high places then, too.