Republicans hone their message

THE great unanswered question about Bill Clinton is whethe he will withstand the pressures of his mostly liberal party and beat a path toward the center -- that is, toward capital gains tax cuts, welfare reform, deregulation, education reform and legal reform. (His nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, is on record supporting tort law changes.)

If Mr. Clinton does those things, he will be a popular president and will very likely be re-elected in 1996. If he doesn't, he will become trapped in the web of special interests that have come to dominate the Democratic Party and will wind up making a few zealots happy -- including, perhaps, his wife -- at the expense of the nation at large.


The great unanswered question about the Republicans is whether Jack Kemp, former Housing and Urban Development secretary, and Bill Bennett, former education secretary, can successfully cooperate to offer coherent leadership.

On Jan. 12, Empower America, the new Kemp/Bennett vehicle, held its opening press conference. The collection of talent on the podium was a tribute not just to the three principals -- Mr. Kemp, Mr. Bennett and Jeane Kirkpatrick -- but to the leadership of former Rep. Vin Weber, the new organization's president.


Empower America is a think tank/advocacy group geared toward three goals: promoting American leadership (including intervention where required) and democratic capitalism around the world; pursuing economic growth and market solutions for national problems; and repairing the cultural decline of the past 25 years.

Most of the talk about the Republican Party in the months since November's debacle has been funereal. The press has focused with glee on perceived infighting between the "religious right" and social moderates for control of the party.

By recruiting a broad spectrum of reformist conservatives for the new organization, Vin Weber and Empower America vitiate the image of Republican intramural combat. On the same stage with pro-lifers Kemp, Weber and Bennett stood pro-choice Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. Other governors who will form an advisory board include Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan, Carroll Campbell of South Carolina and Tom Kean, former governor of New Jersey.

The group was also able to attract Orson Swindle, lately of the Ross Perot campaign, and neo-conservative Democrat Michael Novak.

Between Mr. Kemp and Mr. Bennett, there is much good-humored competition and badinage. When Mr. Kemp, during a characteristically lengthy luncheon speech, paused to tease Mr. Bennett about his slogan for the new organization -- "We won't just cogitate, we'll agitate" -- Mr. Bennett shot back, "It was understandable, and it was brief!"

But beneath the repartee lie serious differences in emphasis. Mr. Bennett can wholeheartedly endorse Mr. Kemp's prescriptions for the economy, but Mr. Kemp has much more difficulty embracing Mr. Bennett's hard-headed analysis of social ills.

The former education secretary talks of compiling a list of "leading cultural indicators," like teen-age pregnancy, drug use and sex and violence in entertainment and in reality. Mr. Kemp squirms a bit at such talk. The challenge for Empower America is whether it can make Mr. Kemp come out sounding more like Mr. Bennett.

Jack Kemp has earned his fine reputation for concern about the poor by tireless visits to inner cities throughout his political career and ceaseless agitation for enterprise zones. But what concerns his conservative supporters is a tendency toward pure economic determinism. During the Los Angeles riots, Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn won applause for saying, "There are some rotten people out there." Mr. Kemp hates talk like that. When he critiques welfare, he cites the rules forbidding the poor to save money but never mentions the epidemic of illegitimacy and the system that perpetuates it.


Mr. Kemp doesn't want to seem punitive, yet some of the reforms being talked about by other conservatives -- like limiting aid for mothers who have more than one child on welfare -- will inevitably be described that way. Where will Mr. Kemp come down?

Mr. Kemp needs the ballast Mr. Bennett offers, not because anyone wants to blame the poor for their condition, but because problems cannot be solved until they are first defined honestly.

Mona Charen is a syndicated writer.