With Wilhelm leading, DNC will be influential ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

January 18, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton's choice of David Wilhelm, his savvy 36-year-old campaign manager, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee means the DNC will be the political command post in the new administration.

It has not always been thus. For years, the job of party chairman for the party in control of the White House was regarded as almost a backwater. The rule of thumb was that the post was worth having only in the "out" party, when its occupant could speak for the party in the absence of a presidential voice.

That was the case during the four-year tenure of Ron Brown, who is leaving to become Clinton's secretary of commerce. Brown was a commanding and consistent voice for unity within the Democratic Party at a time it was adrift, effectively refereeing scraps among the presidential candidates. And he was a sharp critic of the Bush administration.

Likewise, most of the strong Democratic chairmen since the Kennedy era have held the job when there has been a Republican in the Oval Office -- Larry O'Brien in the Nixon years, Bob Strauss in the Nixon and Ford years, Paul Kirk in the Reagan years.

When John Kennedy was president, his national chairman, John Bailey, had the reputation as a shrewd politician but it was O'Brien in the White House who was a more influential voice on matters of politics and policy. Most presidents have wanted their chief political advisers close at hand -- often to the detriment of party-building.

The same has been generally true in the Republican Party, where nine of the past 13 national chairmen served with a GOP president in office and most of them were forgettable. Remember, for example, Dick Richards, Ronald Reagan's first party chief? The principal exception was Lee Atwater, George Bush's successful 1988 campaign manager who, like Wilhelm now, was moved from that job to the party chairmanship.

Atwater was well on his way to rejuvenating party machinery neglected by Reagan when terminal illness took him out of play, and the Republican National Committee became a backwater under the hapless Clayton Yeutter, with White House strongman John Sununu calling the political shots. By the time the current chairman, Rich Bond, took over, the 1992 campaign was under (( way, and so was a tug-of-war with a Sununu-less White House and the Bush re-election committee.

The model for the out-of-power party chairman was Ray Bliss, who picked up the pieces of a shattered Republican Party after the Barry Goldwater debacle of 1964 and undertook a nuts-and-bolts reconstruction of the party machinery. Ron Brown, though a much better public speaker than the bookkeeper-gray Bliss, was in that mold in terms of party rebuilding.

By contrast, most party chairmen for the "in" party have found themselves running a sideshow rather than the main political event. That was even so when such prominent Republican figures as Bob Dole and George Bush held the top party job.

Wilhelm clearly hopes to follow the example of Atwater as a young and skilled political technician with the ear of the president under whom he serves. Stylistically, the two could not be much different. Atwater was a tightly wound, walking hand-grenade, with an overflow of impatient energy and an instinct for the political jugular. Wilhelm is laid back and soft-spoken, but like Atwater is a perceptive student of politics.

Also like Atwater, Wilhelm comes from the school of hard-nosed politics. Atwater got his start under Strom Thurmond in South Carolina; Wilhelm began in Chicago, where he navigated the 1991 re-election of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Before that, he was Sen. Paul Simon's presidential campaign manager in the Iowa caucuses of 1988.

Just as Atwater in 1988 was the architect of the Bush primary campaign strategy that built the Super Tuesday Southern states as a "fire-wall" that sealed Bush's nomination, Wilhelm built a fire-wall in his home state of Illinois for Clinton, ending the challenge of Paul Tsongas.

After that, Wilhelm went on to map the electoral-vote strategy that accurately gauged what states Clinton could and couldn't win.

Now his task will be to cement the coalition that brought Clinton to the Oval Office, to support the new president and build a base for future Democratic victories.

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