Divergent paths to party unity

March 20, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Talk of party unity has dominated the presidential politics scene since Al Gore and George W. Bush made also-rans of Bill Bradley and John McCain in the 100-yard dash that was the decisive 2000 primaries.

The contrast between the approaches of the two winners is striking. Although both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have seized the reform banner held high by Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain in their losing efforts, their attitudes toward the men they vanquished have been almost diametrically opposite.

Mr. Gore has been so solicitously complimentary toward the former New Jersey senator who charged in the primaries that the vice president has trouble with truth that you'd think Mr. Gore had voted for Mr. Bradley instead of himself in the Tennessee primary. As for Mr. McCain, the vice president has so eagerly identified himself with the Republican from Arizona as a reformer and all-around good guy, and is so aware of his pulling power with independent voters, that you half-expect Mr. Gore to anoint him as his running mate.

Mr. Bush has behaved in just the opposite way. Having already stolen the reform label from Mr. McCain after losing to him in the New Hampshire primary, the reinvented "reformer with results" has seemed to go out of his way to leave Mr. McCain in his waiting room, cooling his heels.

It is no secret, after their stormy and contentious battling in the South Carolina primary and beyond, that the two self-proclaimed "buddies" of the New Hampshire primary experienced a very personal, bitter falling-out. Right after Super Tuesday, when Mr. McCain faced the inevitable of Mr. Bush's nomination and "suspended" his campaign, he stopped short of endorsing the victor, merely extending his "best wishes."

The coolness was reciprocated by the Bush camp. Karen Hughes, the governor's no-nonsense director of communications, when asked about possible post-primary negotiations between the two men, replied: "Negotiations? Governor Bush won."

Mr. Bush added to the ill feeling in an interview the other day with the New York Times when asked if anything Mr. McCain had brought to light in the primaries had led him to alter his own opinions. Mr. Bush replied: "No, not really." Well, what about the sharp increase in GOP primary turnout generated by Mr. McCain? Mr. Bush retorted: "Well, then, how come he didn't win?"

The governor said he believed that the breach could be healed by reminding Mr. McCain "there's a lot of agreement" between them. But when asked later whether he had to make "concessions," he said no, and asked how critical it was to "patch things up," he said only that it was "important for there to be some time" to pass.

Mr. Bush in a news conference criticized the Times story, saying it did not "characterize how I feel" about Mr. McCain. He said his opponent had run "a good race" and had "highlighted the needs for reform, and I appreciate the ideas that he brought forth in the campaign." In a later interview with the Dallas Morning News, Mr. Bush said he "would like to make amends with John. I'd like to work together for reforms, and I think I can."

But the conciliatory attitudes of Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush toward the men they beat in the primaries remain pointedly different. For Mr. Gore, it is unity at any price. When Mr. Bradley indicated in his withdrawal remarks that his active support would be conditioned on Mr. Gore explaining his behavior in the notorious Buddhist temple visit and his campaign fund solicitations over White House phones, Mr. Gore quickly owned up to those "mistakes." You come away with the feeling that if Mr. Bradley asked him to jump into the Potomac River, Mr. Gore would be in the water and paddling to the other shore before you could say "campaign finance reform."

Mr. Bush, though, is making no gestures to accommodate Mr. McCain, on campaign finance reform or much else. It's still early, and as he says it often takes time for primary campaign wounds to heal. But with Mr. Gore having already put them behind him, Mr. Bush can ill afford to be petulant about needing Mr. McCain and the independents who swelled the GOP turnout in November.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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