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The New GOP Disorder : The Bush White House has alienated the right, the left and everything in between : Republican Women Are Furious

<i> Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School</i>

With the presidential primary season closing in, the White House is paranoid about a possible threat from the Republican right. See George Bush phone in encouragement to an anti-abortion-rights rally. Watch him veto legislation allowing abortion counseling at federally funded family-planning clinics.

But while the White House is busy pandering to the right, they’re ignoring another potential GOP trouble spot. If the mood of participants at the recent Forum for Women State Legislators, sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics, is any indication, the women--Republican, too--are angry, and the boys just don’t get it!

The Clarence Thomas confirmation battle redefined political relationships between men and women. Regardless of party, women at the forum remained outraged at what they saw as the incompetent and insensitive behavior of male senators. Democratic congresswomen still fumed over the way their colleagues in the Senate slighted them when they showed up at the doors of the Senate caucus room.

But the surprising news is many Republican legislators are no less furious about their own treatment by the White House. “Is there anyone in there?” one New Hampshire lawmaker asked.

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Their sense of an uninterested White House has strained the loyalty of Republican women. That’s not good news for Bush, who can count on fewer and fewer political loyalists.

At a GOP breakfast, where a representative of the Administration “walked into a buzz saw,” and, again, in an afternoon workshop attended by more than 30 pro-choice Republican women, legislators lashed out at the President, GOP Chairman Clayton K. Yeutter, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and the “inside the Beltway” male Republicans who don’t “know what’s going on out there. . . . They’re just in another world.”

The emotions were triggered by two issues increasingly dangerous for Bush and the Republicans: the soured economy and abortion rights.

The economy was an overriding concern for most forum participants. It is, after all--Democrats and Republicans agreed--the ultimate women’s issue, because, when recession comes, the group hit hardest is poor women.

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Emotions were no less intense on the subject of abortion rights. A Republican legislator warned: “The abortion issue symbolizes a respect for women. . . . It is broader than the choice issue.” Activist women clearly felt the President doesn’t understand that or isn’t even listening.

Representatives of the National Republican Coalition for Choice talked of building a Republican Party reflecting support for “a woman’s fundamental right to reproductive freedom.” The coalition pledges to help pro-choice challengers running against pro-life incumbents in Republican Party primaries.

This threat may not send chills up Sununu’s spine. But there is a more immediate--and potentially damaging--prospect that should make the White House--even Sununu--nervous. Bush could be embarrassed at his own convention by a nasty floor fight over abortion rights.

The late GOP Chairman Lee Atwater sensed moderates’ discontent with the Republican platform’s strict anti-abortion language. He attempted to address that with his “big tent” philosophy: There’s room in the Republican Party for differing ideological views. To pro-choice activists, that means modifying the party’s anti-abortion plank. To anti-abortion-rights activists, that means war.

The President’s men are tripping all over each another. Sununu has opposed watering down anti-abortion language, indicating this is the President’s view, too. Vice President Dan Quayle endorsed “big tent” as consistent with Bush’s perspective. Bush has remained largely silent.

So pro-choice groups are mobilizing to elect delegates to the Republican National Convention in Houston and to seat representatives on the party’s platform and policy committees. Because organizers start with a base of pro-choice 1988 delegates, who are likely to return, these are realistic goals.

As one GOP legislator promised, “There’s going to be a lot of noise down in Texas. . . . We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it.”

Does this restiveness spell trouble for the President? In the short-term, probably not. As one GOP pragmatist put it, “George Bush will not be deserted by most women in the party, unless there’s an attractive alternative.” That’s not Patrick J. Buchanan or David Duke. And there is no Democrat on the horizon who appears to fit the bill.

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But in the long run, Bush and the boys will need to wake up to the “heightened awareness” of GOP women who are activists and officeholders.

It is clear from the anger and frustration vented at the San Diego forum, and from discussions with Republican and Democratic activists, that the post-Thomas era has brought an “awakening” of women of both parties to the reality that women are different--they cannot rely on men to represent their interests.

A Center for the American Woman and Politics study revealed women legislators, regardless of party, have policy agendas different from and more liberal than their male counterparts.

Women also share a bipartisan sense of rage directed at the senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who have come to symbolize incompetent male government. “If this is the caliber of men,” a long-time Republican activist exclaimed, “then, DAMN! Why did they keep us out so long?”

Never have women been so united in wanting a government and society that is truly reflective of them. When the rage and frustration build to critical mass, both Democratic and Republican activists argue, women won’t care whether the candidate is a Republican or a Democrat--they will want women .

We’re not there yet. But the idea is not as far-fetched as it might have been--before Roe vs. Wade was assaulted and the Thomas hearings placed sexual harassment and boorish behavior by national leaders high on the political agenda.

Harriett Woods, a Democrat who heads the National Women’s Political Caucus, said: “If we can get women candidates who remind women of the price we pay for not having our life experience represented, if we can remind them of their disgust and anger, we’ll see some change.”

Those are big IFs--in an environment where issues ride up and down the political agenda like kids on a roller-coaster. Where the electorate, the government and the media all seem to have the attention span of a gnat.

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But WHAT IF the disgruntled mood that permeated the forum remains in the election year and shatters partisan loyalties over gender-based issues?

Well, Mr. President, assorted congressional Tarzans and incumbents of every ilk and at all levels of a government gone sour--at the risk of sounding sexist, here is the early line on the nascent election season: “Politics hath no fury like a woman scorned.”


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