Loyalty and perfidy


REPUBLICAN PARTY loyalty has just been dramatically tested from coast to coast.

In New York's grudge fight, a Republican mayor jumped ship to save a sinking Democratic governor; that was flat-out party disloyalty. Contrariwise, in California, a GOP presidential hopeful disagreed with a Republican governor on principle: that was in the zestiest tradition of fighting for a party's soul.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a '70s Democrat who turned Republican in the '80s, made another turn in the '90s to support the last true-believer Democrat, Gov. Mario Cuomo, who is losing. The ostensible reason is that a liberal governor with a taxing habit will be more generous with state funds to the city.

The real reason is that Rudy has come to despise his original Republican sponsor, Sen. Al D'Amato. Al denied Rudy the privilege of designating his successor as U.S. attorney, and Rudy retaliated recently by loosing his investigative hounds on a key D'Amato ally. The rift is intensely personal and irreparable.

When Al's choice for governor, state Sen. George Pataki, spurted ahead in the polls, Rudy faced a bleak prospect. If his fellow Republican won, the path to the governorship would be blocked for nearly a decade, and the unforgetting Mr. D'Amato would be the state's power broker at the '96 national convention. Thus, a Republican victory would dim the Giuliani star.

That's how the eminence grise of New York politics, David Garth -- having delivered Democrat Ed Koch's endorsement to Rudy in his mayoral campaign -- was able to deliver Republican Rudy's endorsement to Mr. Cuomo at the right moment.

When Rudy jumped ship, he praised Mr. Cuomo as "his own man," thereby joining the attack on the Republican candidate as merely the cat's-paw of Mr. D'Amato.

Rudy's strategy: If Mario Cuomo's record is the issue, Democrats lose; but if Al D'Amato's personality can be made the issue, Mario Cuomo (helped upstate by a Ross Perot clone siphoning off protest votes) might slip back in to keep the Albany seat warm for Rudy in a few years. If Republican loyalists' memories are too long for that, Rudy could follow the Mayor John Lindsay trail and run as a Democrat.

The mayor's maneuver has made him a citywide hero because the bumptious Al D'Amato has become anathema to the intelligentsia and a certified media villain.

Sorry, you D'Amato-bashers, but there's a there there. Al supported Baltic independence when most liberals were horrified at the thought of a breakup of the Soviet Union.

He was scorned as "Senator Pothole" until more remote solons came to appreciate the virtues of what they now call "constituent service." Al D'Amato ferreted out the untruths in Treasury officials' recent testimony. As banking chairman he would bedevil Clinton cover-uppers until the Whitewater scandal was exposed.

He gave me this deliciously malaproprietary reaction to Mr. Giuliani's double-cross: "Rudy's worried some Republican's gonna get ahead of him in the food chain."

Now to the party rift on the West Coast, home of Ronald Reagan's "11th Commandment" against speaking ill of party partners.

California's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, impressive comeback kid of the coast, and Republican senatorial candidate Michael Huffington have embraced Proposition 187 to deny schooling to children of illegal aliens.

Jack Kemp and William Bennett have taken sharp issue with what they call this "profoundly anti-conservative, Big Brother, unconstitutional" proposal. The Orange County Register, hardly a pinko publication, commended them for "restoring some principle to the debate" and reported that the visiting Mr. Kemp "encountered stiff resentment from once-friendly faces now contorted in anti-immigrant fever."

Good for Mr. Kemp and Mr. Bennett. The open split may be unhelpful for GOP candidates riding the nativist tide, but helps the party. The philosophy being thrashed out now will determine a key platform plank in '96.

To speak up for party principles, even against present majority opinion, is loyalist. Mr. Kemp, dismayed at Rudy Giuliani's econo-political blunder of embracing Mario Cuomo's leftist tax notions, bridges the coastal battles by saying, "You beat liberals with tax cuts, not by becoming liberal."

To those who wonder if he still has the guts to go for the presidency, the anti-anti-immigrant Mr. Kemp responds: "This is the sort of issue that lights the 'fire in the belly.' "

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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