George Bush's impulse to make William J. Bennett chairman of the Republican National Committee may prove to be brilliant or insane. But it guarantees that the job will not be the errand-boy assignment it has been when other Republican presidents have occupied the White House and let their staffs make all the important political decisions they did not make themselves.
As the first former national chairman to reach the presidency, Bush paid the Republican National Committee the compliment of selecting Lee Atwater, his tough and effective campaign manager, as its chairman for 1989-1990. Bush also made it clear that Atwater was not only a valued political adviser but the man he really trusted to prepare the party for the 1990 and 1992 campaigns.
No one on the Bush White House staff dared undercut or preempt Atwater's role until his brain tumor severely reduced the time and energy he could devote to the job. Atwater had clout because he had earned the respect of other GOP professionals in past campaigns and because he had gained Bush's confidence in the fires of the 1988 primary and general election battles.
Bennett starts with neither of those advantages. While he has campaigned extensively for other Republicans, he has no experience either as a candidate or a campaign manager. Nor has he been regarded as a Bush administration insider. That is why there was general surprise when word seeped out that the president had tapped him for the party chairmanship -- and why there is initial skepticism that he will have the kind of impact Atwater had until his illness sapped his energies.
The doubts, I would venture, will quickly be erased. Bennett has an extraordinary knack for drawing attention to himself -- and to the issues on which he is working at any moment. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education were backwaters of minimal news interest until Bennett got there and provoked such intellectual and political controversy that reporters were drawn like flies. The drug issue needed no Bennett hype to make it important, but his flair for controversy kept the public from forgetting even for a moment who was waging that war the past two years.
In an interview the other day, Bennett made it clear that what attracts him to the new job is the prospect of being the GOP's spokesman -- to "draw the distinctions with the Democrats," as he put it. The Democrats in general -- and Democratic National Chairman Ronald Brown, in particular -- are clearly on notice that they will have to be better prepared than in the past to make their case and defend their record. Bennett is no slouch.
Those of us who think this country suffers from a lack of attention to parties and a shortage of serious partisan debate welcome Bennett to the GOP chairmanship. Especially after the midterm elections, 1992 looks like a year in which the political stakes may be unusually high, a time when the voters' growing frustration with politicians in office could produce wholesale change from top to bottom.
It's hard to think of anyone better equipped than Bennett to make voters believe the choice between Republicans and Democrats is important to the future. By dint of his brains and his rhetoric, he will raise political consciousness -- and that's all to the good.
But the appointment is not without its risks. The same genius for sharpening the issues and polarizing the opposition that will be useful in baiting the Democrats may be costly within the GOP. That party is barely on speaking terms with itself these days. Conservative true believers, who are increasingly out of sorts with the White House, are pleased to have one of their own at the party helm.
But Bennett is not the guy you would pick as a peacemaker among the jousting GOP factions. And he may have a particularly tough time with the newly strengthened ranks of moderate-liberal Republican governors, some of whom challenge his view of himself as the ultimate authority on education and every other subject.
Second, Bennett has a personal political agenda that is obvious to anyone who knows him: He wants to be president someday. If he has the patience to deal with many petty conflicts and parochial needs, he can obviously use this job to build useful alliances with state and local party leaders, just as Bush did back in the 1970s.
But he will be watched closely by the staffs of Vice President Quayle and a half-dozen other 1996 hopefuls in the Cabinet and on Capitol Hill, who will be quick to complain about anything obviously self-aggrandizing. And should his personal agenda or approach to the issues diverge from Bush's reelection strategy, the conflict could become serious.
Those in the White House who watched Bennett campaign unstintingly for Republican candidates this autumn and defend a president who was taking heavy criticism even within the GOP obviously have no doubts about his loyalty. And anyone who wants to see a heavyweight come to the aid of his party has to cheer Bush's bold gamble on Bennett.