Sununu's departure clears re-election campaign decks On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

December 04, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington THE RESIGNATION of White House chief of staff John Sununu, beyond satisfying his critics on Capitol Hill, clears the way for the long-delayed surfacing of President Bush's 1992 campaign team. As long as Sununu remained as the dominating Oval Office gatekeeper with a critical role in the re-election effort, internal hostolity toward him kept progress frozen.

Now it is expected that the key players already widely mentioned -- headed by Detroit-based pollster-strategist Bob Teeter, Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher and former Nixon White House aide Fred Malek -- will assume open direction of the campaign. Sununu's departure promises them the access to Bush they will need to be effective.

But the sloppy, drawn-out disposal of the controversial Sununu has already taken its toll in painting Bush as indecisive, at precisely the time his foot-dragging on coping with the stagnant economy and other domestic concerns has caused him to slide in public esteem.

One talent in which the Republican Party usually far overshadows the Democrats is political damage control, but it fumbled badly on dealing with Sununu. As demands for his head grew over recent weeks, especially after Sununu shunned the customary lightning-rod role of a presidential subordinate and in effect blamed Bush for the recent flap over credit card rates, the Republican White House did a good impersonation of the Democrats. The damaging situation was allowed to lie like a dead fish in the sun, smelling up the political landscape.

One reason may have been that with Sununu himself holding the political reins of the Bush White House so tightly, and with the Bush re-election team still mired in inaction and indecision, the sharp and experienced instincts for political survival that have usually marked the Republican Party at the highest levels were throttled.

It is necessary only to look back a few years for a clear contrast. When Bush jolted his own party by choosing Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988, alarm bells went off in all directions. Quayle's image as a lightweight, his questionable entry into the National Guard during the Vietnam War and the resurrection of ** reports of a seamy golfing weekend in Florida made him the focus of intense media inquiry.

The furor threatened to eclipse the convention acceptance speech in which Bush would seek finally to step out of Ronald Reagan's shadow and become his own man. Into the breach came a seasoned team of GOP damage-controllers. The old pros interrogated Quayle, members of his family and other knowledgeable sources, then led him deftly through a series of network television interviews in which he dampened down the ** fires somewhat. While the furor did continue for awhile longer, the GOP team was able to control the damage sufficiently to permit the spotlight to swing back to the presidential nominee.

The same was true earlier when Bush implied in one debate that he might favor jail for women who had abortions. Campaign chieftain James Baker was quick on that occasion to "clarify" that Bush would consider them blameless "victims." And when Quayle botched his debate with Lloyd Bentsen, the political firemen put out the blaze by emphasizing that the real choice was between Bush and Michael Dukakis, not Quayle and Bentsen.

Over most of the first three years of the Bush administration, however, there was little need for such damage control. Most of the GOP political damage-controllers took up other duties in or out of the administration, with Sununu becoming the guardian of Bush's political image, especially after the illness and death of GOP National Chairman Lee Atwater.

Sununu proved to have enough trouble with his own image, as an abominable no-man within the administration and a profligate squanderer of taxpayers' money to boot, making enemies in and out of the GOP as he went. And as the heat climbed ever higher for his removal, he was able to find little goodwill to sustain himself.

With the president now facing a primary challenge from television commentator Pat Buchanan, Bush at last agreed Sununu was expendable. The Buchanan challenge, as well as one from Louisiana gubernatorial loser David Duke, makes it essential that the Bush re-election campaign get down to serious business -- without Sununu in the way.

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