The Size of the GOP Tent

ELLEN GOODMAN

August 11, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Bill Weld ambles back into the governor's office from his afternoon squash game, cuddling a quick-fix cup of black coffee in his hand. The normally affable and chatty Republican governor is somewhere between tactful and taciturn.

After all, if there were a bumper sticker to attach to his current status in the national limelight it would read ''Pro-Bush, Pro-Choice.'' And it's a label that is not always easy to wear or to reconcile.

Tall, with red hair and a pedigree that makes George Herbert Walker Bush look as if he just stepped off the boat, Mr. Weld squeaked into this office two years ago, on the heels of Mike Dukakis. He did so on a platform that is, in current politico-speak, fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

Fiscally truly conservative and socially really liberal.

TC This very morning, one Boston newspaper played up the news that Mr. Weld plans to grant family-leave and bereavement benefits to some gay and lesbian employees. The other newspaper featured an interview with a powerful state senator criticizing the governor's severe cuts in social services.

Meanwhile the national Republican leadership has been coy about whether it would invite this 47-year-old hybrid -- we love you, Bill, we love you not -- to speak at the convention in Houston. The final verdict is yes, five minutes worth, in C-SPAN time rather than prime-time.

If the Republican convention gets unbuttoned for even a moment it will be because of a challenge to the anti-abortion plank in the platform. Governors such as Mr. Weld and John McKernan of Maine, and worried senators such as John Seymour of California and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- both running against women -- are hoping against all odds that the party will drop the anti-abortion plank.

They would like a ''unity platform,'' silent on the question of abortion and leaving room for Republicans who disagree. What they are talking about is a big tent.

''My sense is,'' says Governor Weld, ''that there's an appetite for a fiscally conservative approach with some lightening up on the social issues. My approach seems to be centered around the people of my generation.''

It's centered, too, on the belief that this perspective is not some odd composite, Scotch-taped from the left and right side of the ledger, but a coherent political philosophy. ''I have an anti-statist mentality,'' says this head of state, ''a distrust of institutions and a corresponding belief in individuals.''

This leads him, on the one hand, to reduce the role of government as a human support system and, on the other, to keep government out of the bedroom. It's a view that comes straight out of the ideological past of the GOP, from Teddy Roosevelt to Barry Goldwater. It may also be the view of the party's suburban future.

Politically, this combination helped Mr. Weld to split the traditional Massachusetts liberal vote, culling the suburban civil libertarians from the urban ''compassion'' liberals. ''Lightening up'' on social issues, in the governor's phrase, is not just limited to abortion or gay rights. ''I would have signed the parental-leave bill,'' he says. ''I would have signed the civil-rights bill.'' Two bills Bush vetoed.

It also helped an unabashedly Brahmin governor who has gone boar-hunting and is currently having a huge trout stuffed -- and not with bread crumbs -- to do what few Republicans have. He has held the women's vote.

To say that he is not in the mainstream of Republican delegates going to Houston is to put it mildly. In the face of ''pro-family'' and moral rhetoric about homosexuality, Governor Weld believes flatly, ''My take on that [homosexuality] is that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.''

In the face of anti-abortion litmus tests, he remembers when a problem in his wife's pregnancy led doctors to mention termination. ''My wife and I never considered that seriously. But if we'd been told to consult with the state legislature for that decision, I would have been surprised and not pleased.''

After the dust has cleared, the platform philosophy will be wide enough for only a pup tent. It's hard to be pro-Bush and pro-choice when President Bush is anti-choice. But if the Republicans lose this year and lose big, power is likely to shift. A lot of people with an eye on the long run, will be watching this maverick from Massachusetts. At 6-foot-4, pro-Bush and pro-choice, it's clear that Bill Weld needs a very big tent.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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