MOBILE, ALA., JULY 31 -- A Republican National Committee ad that blamed congressional Democrats for the savings and loan scandal triggered an angry partisan fight at the closing session of the National Governors Association (NGA) meeting here today.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 presidential nominee, led the Democratic assault. "I hope this is the last time we see this kind of garbage," he said. "We had enough of it in 1988."
Several Republican governors also criticized the ad but blamed the Democrats for starting the political row over the thrift cleanup issue.
In the end, the governors passed with near unanimous support a watered-down version of a Democratic resolution that called for an investigation by an independent, blue-ribbon commission of "the legislative, regulatory and other causes of this unprecedented disaster." The White House has rejected the commission idea, but the sharpness of the debate here clearly indicated that both sides see rising political stakes -- and dangers -- in the savings and loan crisis.
Overshadowed in the battle was the governors' decision to move ahead with their own national education assessment board, despite objections from Democratic congressional leaders, and the formal launching of a year-long study of health policy by the new NGA chairman, Washington Gov. Booth Gardner (D).
The S&L fight was triggered by an RNC ad in this morning's Mobile Register. The ad pictured 12 current and former Democratic members of Congress, including ex-speaker Jim Wright (Tex.) and former House majority whip Tony Coelho (Calif.), who have been linked to contributions from savings and loan interests and alleged favors to the industry.
"You won't see these Democratic 'leaders' around Mobile," the headline read. "They're the guys who let the S&L problem explode into a $325 billion national crisis."
The ad, which cost $1,900, took two-thirds of a page and larger and more pointed than one the RNC ran here Monday, was the subject of angry comment at a closed-door Democratic breakfast with party Chairman Ronald H. Brown. Next door, Republican governors, meeting with White House and RNC officials, were working up their own head of steam about Brown's comments, quoted in the newspaper, criticizing Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt (R), host to the conference, and Brown's attendance at a private fund-raiser that benefited Hunt's Democratic challenger, Paul Hubbert.
Both sides went into the closing plenary session with fire in their eyes and found an outlet for their anger in a policy resolution, originally drafted by Virgina Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D), calling for the blue-ribbon investigation.
North Dakota Gov. George Sinner (D), managing the resolution for the absent Wilder, called the RNC ad "outrageous," and demanded to know "who the hell was responsible" for it.
Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson (R), who is retiring after 14 years in office, said the ad was "wrong and misplaced," but added that the Democrats were equally guilty. The "judgment of the people is that all of the politicians screwed up their trust," Thompson said.
Opposing the commission idea, Thompson argued that "we already know the answer" to what went wrong and predicted an independent study would "give Congress another excuse to duck the tough decisions."
While Republicans had enough votes to have killed the resolution, which required a two-thirds majority, few GOP governors facing reelection wanted to oppose the investigation. So they rallied behind an amendment targeting legislative as well as regulatory failings and adding that the proposed commission should not be empowered to grant immunity to any witness.
Democrats accepted the changes and in the end Thompson was the only one heard voting no.
Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.