Republicans must avoid exclusionary policies ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- It is notable that when soon-to-depart Republican National Chairman Rich Bond released a statement in effect chastising Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice for labeling the United States "a Christian Nation," he got most of the Republicans seeking to succeed him as party chairman to sign on.

The message behind the message was clear: the next leadership of the GOP was not going to pursue exclusionary policies, but instead would embrace the "big tent" philosophy of the late Lee Atwater when he was party chairman.

Atwater made his reference in connection with the issue of abortion, but his central point was that the Republican Party could not afford to exclude anybody and hope to attain majority status.

Getting those names to sign the statement made the point, although it is far from clear that the next party chairman will be among those who have indicated their interest in the job.

Party leaders on Capitol Hill have urged members of the Republican National Committee to take their time in deciding Bond's successor, who is to be elected when the committee meets in January.

The suspicion is that the early presidential hopefuls for 1996, including Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp and even Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who has said he'll think about running, will want to weigh in on the choice to make sure nobody gets an advantage.

In the post-election agonizing that is visiting the Republican Party, however, nothing seems to be creating more consternation than reports of grass-roots organizing within the party by televangelist Pat Robertson and other religious fundamentalists.

The thought that such types are trying to take over the party causes many party regulars, particularly Bush loyalists, to relive what they saw as a damaging display of exclusionary attitudes at the Republican National Convention, in speeches by Robertson and others.

In the immediate wake of President Bush's defeat, comparisons have been made with the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater, when the party was in a shambles and turned to a celebrated "nuts and bolts" political technician, Ohio state party chairman Ray Bliss, to put it back together. At that time, too, Bliss cautioned against exclusionary policies and attitudes.

It is in this regard that such political mechanics as Spencer Abraham, former Michigan party chairman and now chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, RNC member and former White House political aides Charlie Black and Haley Barbour, and former Georgia and Colorado state chairman Bo Callaway are being appraised for the job.

But the Republican Party is in nowhere near the sorry shape it was in 1964. Then the sense was that the party had to be rebuilt from the ashes, and conservatives seized the opportunity without interference from the party's new nuts-and-bolts chairman.

This time around, the defeat was mostly at the presidential level, with the party gaining House seats and several state legislative bodies and facing no severe ideological fight.

The fundamentalists, the Bush loyalists, the supply-siders, the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers all are conservatives on the core economic issues with differences in approach and degree, but not basic philosophy about the role of government. They all want less of it, at less cost.

What the party may need as much as a nuts-and-bolts chairman is a spokesman who can articulate where the party intends to go over the next four years.

It was the failure to do so, after all, that played a major role in Bush's defeat. For this reason, the 1996 presidential hopefuls have a stake in who such a spokesman ought to be, and none of the aforementioned nuts-and-bolts types has much of a reputation as a speaker.

It is in the absence of a strong voice, however, that exclusionary observations such as those by Fordice draw wide attention. And Bond as a lame-duck Bush functionary lacks the authority to counter the damage that such statements inflict on a party already worried over the growing fundamentalist influence within it.

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