Long Sealed, An Old Door Creaks

JOSEPH R.L. STERNE

May 14, 1992|By JOSEPH R.L. STERNE

Housing Secretary Jack Kemp's restoration to high visibility inthe Bush administration as a result of the Los Angeles riots alters the Republican presidential outlook for 1996. As the only prominent GOP prospect who has expressed concern for America's troubled cities, Mr. Kemp's long identification as a conservative is now embellished by an appeal to Republican moderates who have been in eclipse since 1964.

The list of Mr. Kemp's likely rivals for the 1996 nomination at this stage includes Vice President Quayle, Texas' Sen. Phil Gramm, television commentator Pat Buchanan and, perhaps, California's Gov. Pete Wilson.

In the early shuffling, much will depend, of course, on whether President Bush wins election. If he does, the machinery in the White House will get behind Mr. Quayle so long as the vice president continues to please his constituency of one in the Oval Office. If Mr. Bush is defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton, Mr. Quayle probably lacks the kind of stature Walter Mondale had to win the 1984 Democratic nomination after having served four years earlier as President Carter's veep. So Messrs. Kemp, Gramm and Buchanan would move quickly into contention.

A victory by independent Ross Perot would so change the face of traditional party politics in America that it is almost idle to speculate. Mr. Perot could give rise to a third party or perhaps take over the Republican Party and its 1996 nomination. As a man who stands for abortion rights, gun control and activist government, he is quite a contrast to the GOP conservatism of the past 28 years.

On the assumption that the contest for the GOP nomination follows more traditional patterns, the early line shows strengths and weaknesses for each of the other hopefuls now getting frequent mention. Mr. Buchanan comes out of his challenge to Mr. Bush this year with a national network of loyalists and a huge direct mailing list that could be most useful for amassing a campaign chest. Though his appeal is narrow and nativist, he is clearly bidding to be the GOP's next ''Mr. Conservative'' in lineal succession to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

Senator Gramm and Governor Wilson are the only prospects with a geographical base in a big state crucial to every stage of Republican politics. Mr. Gramm is a certified Senate heavy-hitter, a supply-sider like Mr. Kemp whose name is tied the the Gramm-Rudman Act, the boldest of the 1980s' failed attempts to bring the budget under control. As a Texan, he also could be a counterweight to Mr. Perot (and to Secretary of State Jim Baker, if he gets in the race) in ways that can be only dimly foreseen.

Governor Wilson has yet to make his mark in California, a state represented on the GOP ticket in eight of the past 11 elections. But his current position will draw continuing national attention, especially after the L.A. uprising. He is regarded as less of an ideologue than his competitors. In the Senate, he had a fairly liberal voting record on social issues.

Which brings us back to Mr. Kemp, a longtime Bush rival whose appeals for GOP outreach to black Americans and for a credible urban program have at last been vindicated. The president has had to pick up on Kemp ideas -- especially enterprise zones and ''empowerment'' of the underclass in the choice of schools and housing. His stance as a radical populist and a fervent supply-side conservative resonates among a small but powerful GOP group in the House, where Mr. Kemp once was a popular member who represented a blue-collar Buffalo district.

Whatever propels the GOP to open its arms to the disadvantaged and to help the inner cities would be good for the party and good for the country. Until the 1964 convention, when Goldwater conservatives emerged triumphant, Republican liberals and moderates played an important role in national affairs. Senators like Jacob Javits, Clifford Case, John Sherman Cooper, Thomas Kuchel and Hugh Scott provided the key votes, for example, in passage of the 1964 civil-rights act, a measure Mr. Goldwater opposed.

Since then, GOP moderates have virtually disappeared from party leadership, though they are still out there in the electorate. Mr. Kemp's restoration to a position of intellectual authority in the party does not automatically bring them back, but it opens the door to a more caring, compassionate, inclusive kind of Republicanism.

Joseph R.L. Sterne is editor of The Sun's editorial pages.

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