Save Your Reagan Buttons, Boys

GEORGE F. WILL

January 28, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA — Columbia, South Carolina.--This state, the first to secede, seems vehement about its long memories of evergreen grievances.

The capitol -- yes, the building -- is decorated for its war wounds: Brass stars mark spots where Sherman's artillery pitted the walls. A plaque on a statue of George Washington holding half a cane offers this austere explanation: ''During the occupation of Columbia by Sherman's Army soldiers brickbatted this statue and broke off the lower part of the walking cane.''

But for all this backward looking, no state has changed more than South Carolina in 20 years. And inside the capitol sits a governor who is both an effect and a cause of some of the change.

Carroll Campbell, 52, was a Republican congressman for eight years, including 1981, the golden Year One in Republican remembrance. He helped forge alliances with conservative ''boll weevil'' Democrats, passing President Reagan's tax cuts and getting a tantalizing taste of power. But futility is the norm for House Republicans, so he ran for governor. By virtue of educational and other reforms he has become, according to Michael Barone of The Almanac of American Politics, ''an exemplar of governing conservatism for the nation.''

In 1973 South Carolina's anemic economy depended disproportionately on military bases produced by congressional seniority, and on low-wage textile plants. Today BMW's $600 million plant here joins international investments by Fuji (film), Mita (office equipment), Hitachi (television tubes), Nan Ya (industrial chemicals), Hoffman-LaRoche (pharmaceuticals) and others.

In a state once notoriously cross about the constriction of states' rights, Governor Campbell practices creative federalism, competing with other states to produce an alluring business climate. Such competition is one reason why the South is growing. And, Mr. Campbell says contentedly, the South is growing steadily more Republican.

He insists that Republicans nationally ''lost the presidency but won the election.'' The Democrats were held even in the Senate and lost 10 congressional seats. Republicans made a net gain of 14 congressional seats in the South, which voted against the Democrats' all-Southern ticket.

South Carolina gave George Bush 48 percent, his second-best total (second to Mississippi's 49.7). Arkansas gave Mr. Clinton his only Southern majority. Mr. Clinton carried Georgia but only by 16,000 votes, and three weeks later in a runoff Democrats lost a Senate seat there. Republicans gained state legislative seats and local offices across the South. Governor Campbell says two-thirds of Ross Perot's Southern supporters voted Republican down the ballot.

Of President Clinton, Mr. Campbell says, ''If he becomes a Democrat, he's in trouble.'' By ''becoming a Democrat'' the governor means, primarily, making tax increases the administration's main topic of discussion. Already there is ample evidence that Democrats rampant in President Clinton's Washington will fulfill Mr. Campbell's expectation: ''They will seek first to tax, and to fund their constituencies.''

The middle-class tax cut is a receding chimera. The rising tide of talk about ''a broad-based energy tax'' and consumption taxes makes this the pertinent question: How large will be the increased tax burden -- however indirect and disguised -- on the middle class?

What makes Republicans melancholy is not that they lost the presidency, but rather that their 1992 campaign was so sterile. Not all defeats are sterile. William Jennings Bryan took the Democratic Party down to defeat three times, but in the process he advanced its transformation from the party of Grover Cleveland's passive government to Woodrow Wilson's activism. In 1964 Barry Goldwater produced a constructive defeat, making the GOP a fighting force for conservatism.

Mr. Campbell, who in August becomes chairman of the National Governors' Conference, believes the ideas that energized the Republican revival under President Reagan -- low taxes, an emphasis on economic growth -- still command a majority, and, indeed, that this majority is still growing. Conceivably, Governor Campbell might seek to capture that flag as the Republican nominee in 1996, his other options being blocked.

He must leave the governorship in 1994. Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings was just re-elected as South Carolina's junior senator -- junior although in his 27th year in the Senate. Republican Strom Thurmond, elected in 1954, will be only 94 in 1996 and may run again so he can celebrate his 100th birthday in the Senate gym.

Governor Campbell directs a departing visitor's attention to an office portrait of John C. Calhoun, looking so fierce the portrait painter must have said something disrespectful about states' rights. Mr. Campbell says he has hung in the governor's mansion a picture of Andrew Jackson -- the most truculent president -- now that it has been determined that Jackson's birthplace was, at the time, on the South Carolina side of the border (subsequently adjusted southward) with North Carolina.

Calhoun, Jackson. Working beneath the baleful stare of two such pairs of piercing eyes, it would be odd if Governor Campbell did not occasionally raise his eyes toward national prizes.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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