Bush the Pragmatist

December 06, 1991

President Bush's selection of Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner as his new White House chief of staff and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher as general chairman of his re-election campaign displays an instinctive turn to pragmatism in times of trouble. These are men comfortable with the moderate conservatism that Mr. Bush's friends and enemies in the Republican Party have always expected of him -- the former with unrequited hope, the later with undying suspicion.

The right-wing crazies, the "movement" conservatives and the social-agenda zealots in the GOP will not be happy. But to keep too many from straying to Pat Buchanan or the despicable David Duke, the president should be able to trot out Dan Quayle. The vice president was a liability in 1988; he could be a political trump card in mollifying the conservatives in 1992.

What triggers civil warfare within Republican ranks is the same phenomenon that has reinvigorated the Democrats. It is the recession, which even the White House now concedes can last until mid-1992 -- a dangerous prospect for Mr. Bush. As the doldrums continue, the primary calendar will unfold relentlessly. Mr. Buchanan, his screaming persona defined by television, will make his bid in New Hampshire on Feb. 25. Then will come Maryland and perhaps Georgia on March 3, two states targeted by Klansman Duke. A week later a Southern super-Tuesday encompassing Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas will determine if Mr. Duke can do to the GOP what George Wallace did to the Democrats.

Frankly, we doubt it (though this may be wishful thinking). The usual Republican constituency is too upscale, too Establishment, too comfortable, to respond to open rabble-rousing and race-baiting. Governor Wallace (he was, at least, a governor) made his appeal to poor or lower middle-class white Southerners and to blue-collar white working-class Northerners, most of whom have traditionally been in the Democratic Party. There may be "Trailer Park" as well as "Country Club" (Kountry Klub?) Republicans who will heed his call. But if he runs as an independent, the GOP won't be the only party from which he drains votes.

Given this situation, Mr. Bush's decision to put the White House staff and his re-election campaign into the hands of Republicans of his own stamp is both daring and commendable. For too long, he has sullied his presidency by catering to right-wing elements

whose trust he could never win and should never have sought. The result has been an innate contradiction in the image he projects to the country -- a contradiction that has cost him public confidence when he most needs it.

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