Passing Bush on the Right

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

November 20, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

Washington -- Last Saturday night, they danced in Bourbon Street even later than usual. But now the shouting is over, and in the cold dawn, politicians in Louisiana and Washington are having second thoughts about what there is to celebrate.

The good news is not that Edwin Edwards won the governorship, it's that David Duke lost, by a bigger margin than predicted. But that's all there is.

David Duke is not governor of Louisiana, but he is a loose cannon, having fun suggesting that he's going to run for Congress, the Senate or president, as a proud Republican or maybe even an independent. As an individual, he is worrisome enough to the GOP. As a symbol of what is festering out around the country, he scares orthodox politicians of both parties.

While the partying was still going on in New Orleans, The Sun's political correspondent, Paul West, pointed out the down side of the results: Despite everything, 55 percent of white voters chose David Duke for governor.

Ask voters anywhere whether they would vote for an officer of the Ku Klux Klan, and the overwhelming answer will be no. Ask if they would vote for a professed Nazi sympathizer, and the comeback will be just as loud. But the Louisiana runoff was not conducted in the abstract: It involved strong personalities, and it happened in a political climate that runs far beyond the Pearl and Sabine rivers.

As the ex-Klansman, ex-Nazi sympathizer David Duke said in his no-concessions concession speech, he has sent the country a message. That is precisely what George Wallace used to ask voters to do, first in Alabama and then all the way to Canada and the Atlantic.

Mr. Duke bids to be the George Wallace of the Nineties -- and any politician over 50, like George Bush, remembers what Mr. Wallace did in the Sixties: In 1968, running outside the Democratic Party, he took enough votes away from Hubert Humphrey to make Republican Richard Nixon president.

Since then, Ronald Reagan and George Bush have won the White House by courting the same hard-hat, race-conscious whites who were so enamored of Mr. Wallace. Mr. Wallace lured them away from the Democrats in 1968, George McGovern kept them away in 1972, and they have been much more at home with the GOP for the past two decades. In current presidential politics, they are considered the Republican contender's votes to lose.

That is why Mr. Bush and his advisers have played ''quotas,'' the flag and the pledge of allegiance so hard; with an economic policy disdainful of blue-collar voters, they have used racial code words and simplistic patriotism instead. Consciously or not, they learned from George Wallace, and David Duke learned from both.

Like Mr. Wallace, Mr. Duke has mixed red-white-and-blue racism with economic populism, which could give him even more appeal to hard-hats if he should run against Mr. Bush. What effect his running would have on the Bush campaign is hard to read this early. But both he and commentator Pat Buchanan, who is making noises about running, would challenge the president from the right.

Interestingly, Mr. Duke already has welcomed a Buchanan candidacy, saying the two of them would make a comfortable fit -- which speaks again to the parallels between the Duke insurgency and the Reagan-Bush White House, where Mr. Buchanan used to be head cheerleader.

One theory is that with a Duke or Buchanan running to his right, Mr. Bush would be glad to seem more centrist, that he might indeed moderate his campaign away from Willie Horton ads and racial code-words. In the general election, that could strengthen his appeal.

But Mr. Bush, who was denied the presidential nomination in 1980 by the GOP right, then rewarded by it for his loyalty as vice president, is inordinately afraid of primary threats from that direction. His likely reflex is to fight for right-wing support through the primaries, then moderate in the fall, if at all.

Such speculation was strengthened this week by John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, who speaks for the president on political matters. Asked whether bad publicity for the Duke campaign had taken away ''quotas'' as a presidential campaign issue, Mr. Sununu said: No, indeed, it's still a legitimate message, if delivered by a different messenger.

The code is easily deciphered, without the swastika and the hood.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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