Deserting Chavez showed weakness

January 16, 2001|By Tony Snow

WASHINGTON -- Many Republicans wondered how George W. Bush would respond to his first showdown with Democrats. Now they know. In deserting the cause of Linda Chavez, the man who hopes to emulate Ronald Reagan pulled off an imitation of George McGovern.

As the labor secretary-designate, Ms. Chavez was the most provocative Bush nominee, and the most inspired. Big Labor feared she might challenge the privileges unions now enjoy -- such as immunity from election laws and Supreme Court edicts. She also could have transformed the department into an advocate of the New Economy, not just a votary of the old.

Union bosses didn't want to take that chance. John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, went ballistic, falsely accusing Ms. Chavez of opposing affirmative action and the minimum wage. During her tenure as Reagan-era head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, she fought against quotas -- something everybody claims to do today -- and argued against elevating the minimum wage to levels that would throw low-income Americans out of work.

Left-wing activists also entered the fray, mainly because they're sore losers. A Hispanic woman Reaganite was right and they were wrong about quotas, welfare reform, educational choice and most other issues that supported the case for big government.

Still, they knew they couldn't derail the labor nominee over quotas and the minimum wage. They needed a stroke of luck, and they got it. A snitchy Chavez neighbor named Margaret Zwisler and some hyperventilating members of the press corps assailed Ms. Chavez for -- are you ready? -- helping a Guatemalan refugee escape an abusive boyfriend.

Ms. Chavez and her husband let Marta Mercado stay at their place when the woman's then-beau was pounding her. Ms. Mercado was living on the verge of indigence, so they gave her money. In gratitude, she dropped by from time to time and helped with housework. She was not an employee, an indentured servant (as alleged by the increasingly incoherent Jesse Jackson Sr.) or a nanny. Ms. Chavez didn't break the law. She didn't do anything wrong. Here's what she did: She rescued a battered woman who was also an illegal immigrant.

When the story broke (with an assist from old Clinton White House lawyer Neal Eggleston), Mr. Bush expressed support for Ms. Chavez -- a la Mr. McGovern's supporting Thomas Eagleton. Within 24 hours, she was road kill -- again, a la McGovern-Eagleton.

The official explanation was that Ms. Chavez misled the Bush Team by failing to acknowledge that Ms. Mercado was an illegal immigrant. Ms. Chavez admits she blew it. But the new president's troops also surrendered without a fight. The Senate had not held a single hearing on the nomination, and only a smattering of Democrats had opposed her publicly.

Team Bush had plenty of ammo to use in her defense. Ms. Chavez' left-wing critics seemed to advocate deporting all illegal aliens -- including the ones Democrats registered to vote last year -- and punishing anybody who gives sanctuary to an undocumented resident. Meanwhile, feminists who ignored Juanita Broaddrick's rape charges against Bill Clinton called Ms. Chavez a criminal for sheltering a battered woman! Have Democrats ever heaped such scrutiny or scorn on a man?

If such hypocrisy weren't enough to put Ms. Chavez's foes on the defensive, she also makes an awfully good role model for compassionate conservatism. She helps people without fuss, fanfare or federal money. When is the last time a liberal Democrat took in a beating victim?

Team Bush let agitators from the Party of Clinton knock off a nominee without any lawmaker's having to risk a scintilla of political capital. Now, some Democrats salivate at the prospect of turning the president-elect into an amiable doormat.

The next move is up to Mr. Bush. As Nietzsche observed and Job proved, that which does not kill a man makes him stronger. Mr. Bush can draw strength from this mugging by vowing never again to knuckle under to the character-assassination tactics pioneered by Democrats in the Robert Bork hearings and repeated at the expense of Douglas Ginsburg, John Tower, Clarence Thomas and, now, Linda Chavez. If Mr. Bush wants the loyalty of Republicans, he'll have to stand behind his people -- beginning with the latest victim of smear politics, John Ashcroft.

Just as one must weed before cultivating a garden, Mr. Bush has to be a fighter before he can be a uniter. He has to tame dividers bent on his failure -- including labor.

Washington isn't Austin. It's the dark side of Oz, and nobody takes orders from anybody perceived as a Cowardly Lion. Mr. Bush still has a chance to create an era of good feeling -- and to become a very good president -- but the entire enterprise hinges on his ability to make others take him seriously. Lawmakers make nice only to those they respect and fear. That's the real moral of the Chavez debacle.

Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.

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