Recent White House acts seem to mimic the GOP



WASHINGTON -- If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Republicans should be immensely flattered by the White House's behavior since the Nov. 8 election.

Speaker Newt Gingrich had no sooner suggested he would push a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in the schools than President Clinton rushed to tell a news conference -- in Jakarta, Indonesia, for heaven's sake -- that he might be able to find a formula to allow prayer.

The Republicans no sooner advanced their tax cut for the middle class than Clinton trumped them with a "Middle-Class Bill of Rights."

And the celebrated Republican "Contract With America" has been met with Clinton's revival of the "New Covenant" -- Is a covenant the same thing as a contract? -- he promised during his 1992 campaign.

Now the White House has taken even to imitating Ronald Reagan with its plan for a bifurcated leadership of the party apparatus. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut is to be "general chairman" of the party, and Don Fowler of South Carolina, a longtime and highly regarded veteran of party affairs and former state chairman, is to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) -- thus replicating the Republican plan in 1981 that made then-Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada general chairman and Frank Fahrenkopf the national chairman.

There are, however, significant differences in the two situations.

First, Laxalt was given the title because he was Reagan's closest ally in Washington and had been chairman of his campaign in 1980. By contrast, Dodd has never been an intimate of Clinton and has been chosen largely to serve as a spokesman confronting Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour.

More to the point, Laxalt was an ideological match for Reagan. By contrast, Dodd is probably more liberal than the president -- raising the possibility of issues on which the Connecticut Democrat may find it necessary to disagree with the president whom he is supposed to be serving as a prime defender.

The Republican history does show, however, that the divided leadership can work. Fahrenkopf, who had been state chairman in Utah before taking over the Republican National Committee, proved to be an effective national chairman, both as an administrator and party builder and as a voice for Republican ideas to whom the self-effacing Laxalt often deferred. There is no reason to believe Fowler cannot perform with similar effectiveness if given the opportunity.

The alternative approach for the disheartened Democrats might have been to do what the Republicans did after the 1964 Barry Goldwater debacle. They chose the Ohio state chairman at the time, Ray Bliss, because he had no clear ideological identity and was totally devoted to what he called "nuts-and-bolts politics." The spokesmen for the party became Republican congressional leaders -- Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen in particular -- and its next crop of presidential candidates, including Richard M. Nixon.

Fowler is too little known to have any ideological identity with the electorate. Within the party he is considered a centrist but perhaps more liberal in some respects than other Southern leaders. Even as South Carolina has become a wasteland for the Democrats, Fowler has never run from his identification with the national party. And, significantly, he was the first Southern party leader -- and the only one for some time -- who supported Ronald H. Brown when he sought to become the party's first black national chairman in 1989, a position not forgotten by black Democratic leaders.

However they work things out, Dodd and Fowler are facing a complex and daunting assignment. The DNC is heavily in debt, and opinion polls show voters running away from the party in droves. The president looks so vulnerable that other Democratic officeholders are showing little hesitation about distancing themselves from him.

But political history also teaches that the electorate is volatile. It shouldn't be forgotten that just four years after Goldwater, Nixon captured the White House -- with the help of, among other things, party machinery rebuilt by Ray Bliss.

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