Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder came to Washington yesterday, denied any presidential ambitions and then tore into President Bush, accusing him of exploiting racism for political gain.
In a strongly worded speech to a forum sponsored by National Review magazine, Wilder linked Bush to conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and accused the "Bush-Helms axis" of embracing what the Democratic governor branded as "the New Extremism."
Wilder compared Helms's recent reelection campaign, which featured television commercials decrying racial hiring quotas, to Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which Bush said required such quotas.
Calling Bush and Helms "the odd couple of conservatism," Wilder charged that they "decided to join forces over the phony issue of racial quotas for the sake of political expediency . . . . I am certain that the people of America find it abhorrent to think that some would attempt to turn the issues of equality and opportunity for all into a political football."
Wilder's speech came a week after he chartered a national political action committee, the Committee for Fiscal Responsibility in 1992, fanning speculation that he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Wilder said in answers to questions yesterday that his PAC is not the precursor of a presidential bid.
But his speech focused on national, not state, issues, stressing the blend of social liberalism and financial conservatism that some say Wilder would like to turn into a presidential platform. At the same time that Wilder took Bush to task for opposing civil rights legislation, he touted his own efforts to eliminate a $1.4 billion Virginia budget deficit without raising taxes. He said federal officials should copy his approaches on both fronts.
Wilder took potshots at several senior Bush aides, calling White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Budget Director Richard G. Darman the "Laurel and Hardy" of the recent budget crisis. Citing Bush's 1980 description of Ronald Reagan's policies, Wilder said Bush has "replaced voodoo economics with something equally alarming, Sununu economics."
National Drug Policy Director William J. Bennett, who recently resigned, "bugged out" of the war on drugs, Wilder said. "The general has just pulled out," he said, "declaring victory, while leaving the streets to the enemy."
Parts of Wilder's comments were lifted directly from his 1989 gubernatorial campaign. Wilder has dubbed his political approach "the New Mainstream," and at times referred to his Republican rival's antiabortion stance as part of "the New Extremism." Yesterday's attack on Bush marked the first time Wilder had applied the phrase to a national figure.
White House spokesman Stephen Hart declined to comment yesterday on Wilder's attack on the president.
"The New Extremism wants to use the power of government to deny people their basic rights and to interfere in their personal lives," Wilder said.
"The New Extremism spouts mighty rhetoric about fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets, but then embraces a trillion-dollar federal debt."
The forum Wilder addressed yesterday was called "Conservatism and the Democratic Party," and his appearance there reflected the praise that Wilder's calls for belt-tightening have received from some prominent conservatives. But he spent much of his time heaping scorn on Bush, particularly on the issue of race.
"As one who has had some experience with real racial quota laws," said Wilder, who is black, "let me say that the Civil Rights Act of 1990 is not one of those laws. History likewise will record that it was George Bush who has become the leading apologist for the blatant ballot intimidation tactics aimed at minority voters in North Carolina's senatorial election."
The North Carolina GOP targeted black voters there in a "ballot security" program, sending letters warning them against voting illegally.
"Surely a president who stands up to the intimidation of Saddam Hussein," Wilder said, "must stand up to the intimidation of extremists like Jesse Helms."