The absence of House Republican campaign manager Ed Rollins from last weekend's television screens reflects the insistence at the Bush White House on tidiness among Republicans while ignoring a possible disaster next Tuesday.
Rollins was told that if he canceled his scheduled interviews, he would not be trashed on those programs by administration mouthpieces. But President Bush has deemed Rollins persona non grata, and he will quit soon after the election. What's more, the long knives are out at the White House to purge Rollins's boss, Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, as House Republican campaign chairman.
The Bush formula: soft on Democrats, whose wildest dreams were exceeded by the budget package; hard against Republicans, who might suggest the emperor has no clothes. On the brink of an election that figures to undo many GOP gains of the '80s and blight chances in the '90s, the president seeks to discipline party operatives who are trying to avert catastrophe. Republicans are eligible to reclaim their old niche as the Stupid Party.
The White House has been oblivious to the political carnage that ensued when Bush took Budget Director Richard Darman's advice and broke his no-new-taxes pledge. Rollins has tried in vain to explain to chief of staff John Sununu that not only contributions for this year's candidates have dried up but the party's financial base has eroded. Incredibly, Republican candidates -- even incumbents -- have been outspent by Democratic foes.
The money squeeze was translated into a Republican free-fall in polls once the president actually signed off on the massive tax increase. But Bush has taken issue not with the Democrats who have drawn him into their trap but with Republicans who have resisted it.
House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich was the first target of presidential wrath for failing to join Bush in breaking the tax pledge, but it soon became clear there was not much chance of purging him from the party leadership. The president then turned his wrath on Rollins for advising Republican congressional candidates (indiscreetly in writing) to save themselves. The House GOP would stand behind Rollins, but he knows he cannot continue if the Republican president wants him gone. Rollins will resign after the election, and it will not be done quietly.
The White House did keep Rollins gagged last weekend. Facing losses in this decennial reapportionment year that would doom the Republicans to a decade of impotency, the Bush high command last week was most deeply involved in trying to keep dissenting Republicans off television Saturday and Sunday. Gingrich, trying to retrieve his White House pass, agreed to keep quiet. Consequently, no TV viewer heard from a Republican voice why a majority of party members in Congress voted against the president's deal.
Early post-election planning at the White House has mostly to do with curbing Republican dissent by purging Guy Vander Jagt. During 16 years heading the House GOP campaign committee, he has been the prototypical party loyalist. But he has sinned lately.
Apart from hiring Rollins, those sins include urging the president to disavow the Democratic budget, promoting a no-tax Republican budget among House colleagues and failing to vote for the tax increase last Saturday morning. The White House-designated successor is Rep. Don Sundquist of Tennessee, a Bush insider who can be depended on to support the president no matter what he does.
Meanwhile, the White House political plan is for Bush on the campaign trail to reverse the anti-Republican tide by asserting that the budget he supported was foisted on him by free-spending, free-taxing Democrats. That is how he attempts to explain why not one serious Republican challenger of a Democratic incumbent supported it.
One Bush aide told us that the real recovery for the president will not come until the election campaign, with its unpleasant clamor about taxes, has ended and the president can resume the role of global leader. His post-election travels to Eastern Europe, South America and especially the Middle East (where he will spend Thanksgiving with the troops in Saudi Arabia) are designed to restore his fallen ratings.
That will not do much for the Republicans likely to fall next Tuesday. The president has not suggested how he plans to function in the next Congress with a Democratic majority that has tasted blood and a further depleted Republican minority unable to sustain vetoes any longer. Whatever he does, he will be rid of Ed Rollins and maybe Guy Vander Jagt to make sure there is no back talk from his own ranks.