GOP candidates unlikely to declare truce

February 26, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Jim Nicholson, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is kidding himself with his declaration that he will not stand for fellow Republicans attacking each other during the contest for the party's presidential nomination. What a pipe dream.

Mr. Nicholson dragged out that old chestnut, the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican." It was the brainchild of a California party chairman in the 1960s, one Gaylord Parkinson, and highly recommended by Ronald Reagan as both governor and president.

Of course, at the time Mr. Reagan was so devoted to the 11th commandment, he was always the leading candidate who would have been the target of political sinners.

As a practical matter, the commandment has been honored mostly in the breach, of course. One of the lessons of media politics is that attacks on opponents work with voters. And the first duty of any politician, as Adlai Stevenson once observed, is to get elected.

Mr. Nicholson's professed concern is that the Republicans will fall to fighting among themselves while Vice President Al Gore sails blithely unscarred to his party's nomination and then on to election. He may be wrong on both counts. Republicans will fight among themselves, and Mr. Gore could face a stiff challenge from Bill Bradley.

In any case, there are sound reasons the candidates and their supporters will ignore Mr. Nicholson's warning that he will "blow the whistle" on those who divide the party.

The most obvious is the lesson of the New Hampshire primary in 1996. Television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan won that primary after magazine publisher Steve Forbes ran a tough attack on the leading candidate, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and cut his positives sharply late in the race. At the same time, the Dole campaign attacked Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, when it appeared he was gaining steam and might catch up. In the end, Mr. Dole finished second and Mr. Alexander third.

But even without the example of history, there are practical reasons candidates such as Mr. Alexander and Mr. Forbes, ostensibly Mr. Nicholson's prime if unnamed targets, will go negative. They are far enough behind Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole in the opinion polls that they risk being written off as fringe candidates if they don't cut into those leads.

Thus, when Mr. Alexander attacks Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" as "weasel words," he is trying to send a message to conservative Republicans that Mr. Bush may be a closet moderate so they should think twice. Also, getting into a one-on-one fight with front-runner Bush would put the spotlight on Mr. Alexander. But Mr. Bush is too smart to fall for that one.

Finally, Mr. Nicholson's warning ignores an important truth about the Republican Party today. There is an ideological and cultural division that cannot be papered over with 11th commandments or speeches at party meetings. The conservatives who make up the religious right are convinced that the more conventional Republican conservatives are morally corrupt if they do not share the view that abortion rights and homosexual rights are unacceptable.

The GOP chairman can talk about how candidates will have to "pay the price" if they attack one another. But that's a joke. Mr. Nicholson has no power to influence the contest for the nomination to any significant degree.

In fact, he may be the most invisible and impotent party chairman in decades. But even his high profile predecessor Haley Barbour would have been similarly powerless in an age in which the decision is made by primary and caucus voters.

If Mr. Nicholson wants to accomplish something for his party, why doesn't he face up to the question of whether adamant opposition to abortion rights is going to remain a litmus test for a place on the ticket? Or why doesn't he crack down and insist the platform writers of 2000 not be required to include the usual demand for prohibition of all abortions?

Telling the presidential candidates they must play nicely together is silly.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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