White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu gave a speech at the National Press Club that sounded like the outline for a basic stump speech for the 1992 campaign.
Introduced by moderator Kathryn Kahler as "White House Chafe of Staff," Sununu declared that he would continue his calculated insults and deliberate tantrums toward Congress and volunteered that the political discussions to come would be "a little sharpened." This could be a euphemism for nasty, a tone that is practically guaranteed by the advent of William J. Bennett at the Republican National Committee. Like Sununu, who chose him, Bennett uses unpleasantness as a political tool. Either of them could make the Lord's Prayer sound like an ultimatum.
The villain of the 1992 campaign has been identified: It is Congress.
Although Congress collaborated with the president for what Sununu called "a tremendous record of success" -- clean air, child care, the Americans With Disabilities Act -- it must be punished for George Bush's change of lip about taxes.
In a thunderously revisionist version of the fall fiasco on the famous budget deal -- Sununu called it "a clear discussion" -- he claimed that Bush was forced to accept a revenue increase, which was "not an economic necessity," only "a political necessity" by a piratical Congress.
He spoke of thuggish Democrats, who held the budget "hostage" to their passion to raise taxes, who held the economy and the country "for ransom." The president, he said darkly, had paid "the tax ransom once . . . he will not be forced to pay the tax ransom again."
While Sununu organizes the castigation of Congress on domestic issues, Vice President Quayle is apparently going to be their scourge on foreign policy. Quayle gave a speech to the Republican Governors' Association in Pinehurst, N.C., in which he accused Congress of "playing politics" on the war. Earlier, Quayle lectured Congress on the immorality of waiting in the gulf. Democrats are more diverted than worried at the prospect of National Guardsman Quayle as spokesman for going into battle.
Of course, if Bush succeeds in freeing Kuwait without bloodshed and staves off grave economic troubles, he could be invulnerable in 1992. The Democrats are already acting as if he were. He may run unopposed.
At this time in 1986, roughly two years before the presidential election, the woods were full of Democrats stalking the nomination. Richard Gephardt was wooing Iowa. Michael Dukakis was making eyes at New Hampshire. Gary Hart, the front-runner, was giving solemn interviews about reforms at the Pentagon. Bruce Babbitt was moving around the primary states.
This year, the scene is empty. Mario Cuomo is wrestling with a budget deficit and a balky legislature. He is no more forthcoming than ever about his ambitions and intentions. He speaks around, but says nothing.
This week he probably gave Roger Ailes and other GOP media sharks the makings of a negative campaign commercial. He appeared on a platform in New York and hailed "the courage and sacrifice of the union movement." He called for collective bargaining "without violence" but made no mention of the violence that has occurred. A non-union Daily News replacement driver was dragged from his truck and stabbed and beaten by goons.
"Who failed to condemn labor violence?" the voice-over could say.
Each side in the bitter dispute says the other is trying to eliminate it. But it's clear there was notorious union featherbedding, and no newspaper, even one as worthy as the Daily News, can withstand that kind of drain.
"Who approves of forcing management to pay union employees for doing nothing?" is another possible voice-over.
The other heavyweight contender, Sam Nunn, is not the type to go door to door in New Hampshire. He has become the new and improbable idol of the left because of his staunch stand against going to war in the gulf. Nunn gave protection to fellow Democrats, his concurrence is the next best thing to having a letter from the secretary of defense pinned to your coat.
Nunn's dovishness on the gulf may not be enough to keep the activist left, always the dominant element at a Democratic convention, bound to him. But he has made other moves that may be more significant than exploratory expeditions to Iowa in the dead of winter. He has lately changed from antiabortion to abortion rights. But he still votes for behemoth weapon systems like the B-2, and the affair between him and the liberals may not last.
Whoever the Democrats choose -- and they may have to draft somebody -- the White House seems to be ready.