As President Bush prepared to confront Iraqi aggression, White House chief of staff John Sununu engaged political pro Ed Rollins recently over the dinner table in a shouting match that showed war dangers in the Persian Gulf have not brought peace to the Republican Party.
The quarrel between Sununu and Rollins, renewed in a private dining room at the Hay-Adams Hotel, is an old one: GOP congressional support for their president. But less important than the substance of their tiff is a rupture between the Bush administration and Republican politicians, Mideast crisis or not.
The politicians brood about the wound inflicted on the GOP by Bush when he abandoned his pledge not to increase taxes. Their broader complaint is that the president and his men don't know what they are doing and are unintentionally reviving a comatose Democratic Party. That accusation was given credence by Bush's astonishing tactic last week in trying to change the subject from Iraq to the budget deficit.
Republican National Deputy Chairman Mary Matalin convened the Aug. 6 dinner at the Hay-Adams, across Lafayette Park from the White House, for a limited purpose. She wanted Republicans reassured that, contrary to their fears, the administration really does have a game plan for dealing with the savings and loan crisis before it engulfs the GOP.
On hand was a who's who of the Republican political brain trust: Stu Spencer, Lyn Nofziger, Pete Teeley, Craig Fuller, Haley Barbour and Ed Rollins, among others. Brought in to calm their anxieties was the president's agent in charge of the S&L crisis, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady. In the style of high Washington bureaucrats, Brady came to dinner accompanied by five senior Treasury officials.
The non-political Brady proved an unfortunate choice, considerably less than reassuring to politicians looking to escape from the S&L cul-de-sac. Unfamiliar with ''Bradyspeak,'' a few dinner guests thought they heard the secretary make the patently incorrect statement that nobody really made money out of the scandal. He meant to say that the multibillion dollar cleanup benefited only depositors, not S&L operators. As the evening wore on, politicians around the table complained that the administration should be tougher in blaming the fiasco on Democrats.
Trouble began before dinner was served. Sununu, tired and ready for vacation, stopped in for cocktails and raised familiar complaints about non-support from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Rollins, currently co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and no less feisty than Sununu, responded that the White House might do well with less hand-holding of congressional Democrats and more attention to GOP lawmakers.
That provoked a Sununuesque eruption that has become commonplace to those who know him well but stunned unfamiliar dinner guests. The chief of staff left no doubt of his impatience with Rollins' client (and Sununu's friend), House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, for devaluing the president's hand by attacking Bush's new willingness to raise taxes. With that, Sununu smiled and, as scheduled, went elsewhere for dinner.
But that did not end the tax-increase talk. Sununu had misgivings internally about breaking the tax pledge, but never Brady. ''We cannot grow out of the deficit,'' he said at the Hay-Adams, asserting that because it is impossible to cut enough spending, higher taxes are necessary. To the pols present, such talk is what's wrong with the Bush team.
That view was confirmed eight days later when the president, basking in deserved praise for amassing the world against Iraq, inexplicably opened a second front by attacking Democrats on the budget. The move had been charted before the Hay-Adams dinner, even before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. A consensus on the White House staff wanted to defer this assault because of the transformed political climate and the revival of Bush's support. But Sununu and his political aide, Ed Rogers, insisted on assailing the Democrats and so convinced the president. Dinner guests of Aug. 6 for the most part were astounded by the unfortunate timing.
GOP grass-roots politicians question not merely Bush's tactics but his goals. ''The problem the country faces is not a budget deficit but a recession,'' Rep. Vin Weber, secretary of the House Republican Conference, told us from his rural Minnesota district. Weber's close collaborator, Gingrich, told his Georgia constituents in a letter last that ''we should oppose new taxes when threatened by recession'' -- a break with the president by the No. 2 House Republican. The shouting at the Hay-Adams private dining room is going public.