Bitter disputes over new civil rights legislation and the federal budget are forcing a reluctant White House and the Republican Party to confront the tensions between President Bush's election tactics and his governing strategy.
Those tensions help explain why the last two weeks have been so miserable for Bush. He has discovered that constituencies that got along famously when Ronald Reagan was president and during his first 18 months in office have some irrepressible conflicts with each other.
The Republicans find themselves caught between socially conservative working-class whites who are showing growing resentment of blacks and a more affluent constituency that looks kindly on civil rights and other forms of social liberalism.
For more than two decades, Republicans have held this unlikely alliance together by mixing anti-government themes with opposition to taxes and enough social conservatism to keep the working-class wing of the party happy. Bush's 1988 campaign neatly embodied this mix of messages in the slogan "no new taxes" and in the person of Willie Horton.
The Republicans' problems began last June when Bush abandoned the no-new-taxes pledge. Once the president accepted the need for new taxes, the debate shifted to ground congenial to the Democrats -- not whether taxes should rise, but who should pay them.
Now, faced with the prospect of losing control of the national budget debate to Democrats using a "tax-the-rich" theme, some Republicans believe it is more important than ever to revive the old social conservatism in a new form. They are trying to highlight Democratic vulnerabilities ranging from the decay of crime-ridden New York City to the prospect of court-imposed racial quotas and what House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) refers to as "the corrupt liberal welfare state."
These Republicans would welcome a Bush veto of the civil rights bill, since a veto would highlight a key social issue -- quotas -- and help to undermine the Democrats' efforts to develop a biracial, class-based appeal to the lower and middle-income groups.
The president's political problem is that his electoral coalition depends far more than Reagan's on suburban upper middle-class voters who are offended by attacks on civil rights. Bush's political persona, moreover, has been that of a "kinder, gentler" healer who wanted to take the rough edges off the Reagan years.
The kinder, gentler approach runs headlong into the much less gentle reality of Republican strategy for the past generation. Central to GOP presidential triumphs, including Bush's, has been the Republicans' ability to polarize the electorate along lines guaranteeing them a majority: Taxpayers against public employees and the recipients of government help; crime victims and those worried about crime against civil libertarians; and, ultimately, whites against blacks and other minorities seeking state protection.
Opposition to taxes was the linchpin of this approach. It maintained the Republicans' fragile alliance between white working-class voters on the one side and business and the affluent on the other.
The wealthy, whether socially liberal or not, have almost always welcomed low tax rates. But in the 1970s, lower middle-class and working-class whites joined the anti-tax coalition as inflation drove up their tax bills and as they came to see government as primarily helping those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
When he dropped his tax pledge, Bush fractured that alliance, and struck it another blow when he endorsed taxes that would fall heavily on people of modest income. This provided an opening for Democrats to portray Bush and the Republicans as friends of the wealthy and enemies of the middle class.
Republicans as diverse as Reps. Gerald B. H. Solomon, a conservative from New York, and Jim Leach, a liberal from Iowa, expressed alarm that their party was once again being tagged as a haven for millionaires. Even Gingrich is worried. "If you go anywhere in America and say to people, 'If we have to raise taxes, would you rather raise taxes on the rich?' they always say yes," Gingrich said.
For Republicans, one way out of the political morass could involve vetoing the civil rights bill to shift the national political agenda to issues more favorable to the GOP -- issues such as racial quotas.
Republican strategists were well aware even before David Duke's strong showing in the Louisiana Senate contest that racial tensions in the United States are high. Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, said that in focus groups, white voters have been "pretty visceral" in their reactions to blacks.
"There are a lot of middle-class whites who think that blacks are getting too many preferences and 'handouts,' " she said. "They feel that they're not getting any help in terms of tuition assistance or other government programs."
DiVall, who is quick to note that her clients have not been using racial issues in their campaigns, added that such views are being expressed "There are a lot of middle-class whites who think that blacks are getting too many preferences and 'handouts.' "
-- GOP pollster Linda DiVall
quite openly. "There are no code words," she said. "They're talking about 'too much aid going to them, too much aid going to people who don't work hard.' "
A veto of the civil rights bill could play right into these feelings and might thus benefit Republicans, at least in the short term. But that worries Republicans like Leach, an early Bush supporter who epitomizes the moderate-liberal wing of the president's electoral alliance. Leach and like-minded Republicans think that the last thing a beleaguered president needs now is a fight with black Americans and the civil rights leadership.
For his part, Gingrich has tried to shift the discussion by emphasizing the failures of "welfare-state liberalism," especially in big cities like New York that have long been bastions of Democratic control.
Appearing earlier this week on the CNN program "Crossfire," Gingrich argued that the Democrats' position made sense only "if you believe in the welfare state, if you believe in the bureaucracy of New York City and if you're clever enough to convince the Democratic Party nationally to raise taxes on everybody in America to prop up Mayor Dinkins and his bureaucracy."
New York's Mayor David Dinkins is black and Gingrich's comment drew a sharp retort from Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "They often run to the race card when they don't have anything else," Schumer said of the Republicans. "Newt was losing on the tax issue, so he brought up David Dinkins."
Gingrich, who has called on the Republicans to recruit black canidates and appeal more aggressively to black voters, replied that the issue was not Dinkins' race but the "collapse of the welfare-state system" in New York City.
In the meantime, Republican strategists believe they have workable approaches well short of "playing the race card." Gingrich predicted that once Congress had passed a budget and left town, Bush would renew his attacks on the Democrats' free-spending ways and argue that he had agreed to new taxes only because the Democrats had insisted on them as the price of reaching a budget agreement.
But even this argument carries dangers for Bush. It implies that Congress, not the president, is in control of national policy. And as Jimmy Carter learned, presidents who do not appear in control of the government are rarely appealing to the American electorate.