“This war is a big lift for the American psyche, the South and the GOP,” a beaming Clarke Reed, a long-time power in Southern Republican politics, said Friday as the Republican National Committee met here to chart the party’s political future.
But when asked by a reporter if he had any misgivings about the outcome of Operation Desert Storm, a still smiling Reed held up his right hand and displayed two fingers, tightly crossed.
Reed’s response reflected the mood of optimism, heavily tinged with uncertainty over events in the Persian Gulf, that pervaded this gathering of party leaders. Though the committee dutifully endorsed President Bush’s choice of Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter as the party’s new chairman and formally ratified Houston as the location of the 1992 convention, these chores were clearly overshadowed by speculation about the political fallout from the country’s first major military involvement since Vietnam.
Republicans are exultant that at the moment, their President is riding a tide of public enthusiasm for Operation Desert Storm. But they also realize that his political destiny, and theirs, are hostage to the unpredictable fortunes of war.
The ambivalent outlook seemed to be exemplified by the behavior of their new chairman, Yeutter, picked to replace Lee Atwater, who is fighting for his life against an inoperable brain tumor. Earlier in the week, Yeutter provoked indignant protests from Democratic leaders by saying of lawmakers who voted against authorizing Bush to go to war: “I would guess that about 90% of those folks wish now that they cast their votes the other way.”
But in his acceptance speech Friday, Yeutter refrained from firing off more partisan barbs about the war effort. Afterward, in an interview, he said he was not going to discuss the war or any other political issues for another four weeks, until he had finished clearing his desk at the Department of Agriculture and moved to his new post at party headquarters.
“All I said was that the American public will hold members of Congress responsive and accountable for their votes, and I believe that’s a truism,” he said.
If the war does not turn out as well as most Americans hope it will, Yeutter conceded, “it’s certainly possible” that the issue could work against Republicans rather than Democrats. “All I was saying,” he said, “is that the American public will make their own evaluation of that.”
The worst scenario for Republicans, as well as for the country, would be a long and costly war in the gulf and a worsening recession at home. That combination would contravene the promise of peace and prosperity that were the main planks of Bush’s 1988 campaign.
“A party that leads the country into war and recession is not going to be popular with the American people,” Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a leading spokesman for House GOP conservatives, said at a forum this week on the party’s 1992 agenda.
Some Republicans claim to be confident of a swift and successful conclusion of the gulf conflict. “If things turn out as I expect, it is going to be an extraordinarily powerful issue for us,” said Eddie Mahe, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the national committee. A quick military victory, Mahe said, will “set off a national celebration” big enough to provide a boost to the economy.