SAN DIEGO -- Jack Kemp has taken a dive on the issues of immigration and affirmative action to put himself in line with the views of Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole and the party platform.
It was probably a mistake, both in the short run and over the long haul. George Bush never escaped entirely the reputation he acquired in 1980 when he became an overnight and ardent opponent of abortion rights to make himself a comfortable vice presidential nominee for Ronald Reagan.
In this case, the conversion is even more dramatic. Mr. Kemp not only supported affirmative action and opposed immigration restrictions but did so aggressively in the face of a strong body of contrary opinion among Republican conservatives.
But the notion that it was necessary to make the reversal and put it behind him -- the strategic thinking in this case -- is probably mistaken. Mr. Kemp could have gotten away with saying that sure, he disagreed with Mr. Dole on some issues but that he also agreed the policy for the party would be set by the presidential candidate, whether or not he agreed with it in all particulars.
Indeed, given the skepticism and often cynicism with which voters view politicians today, that kind of candor might be a valuable credential with Americans trying to find something new and refreshing on this Republican ticket.
It also should be noted that these are issues on which there is significant minority opinion. Although most Americans may be unwilling to offer special treatment to blacks these days, affirmative action is still necessary to and prized by working women in many economic situations.
Similarly, although immigration policy may be a hot-button issue in some states, it is not a highly volatile question everywhere.
The irony in all this is that neither immigration nor affirmative action is an issue Bob Dole ever assigned a high priority. On the contrary, as Republican leader in the Senate Mr. Dole distinguished himself as a leader seeking practical solutions to problems and only perfunctorily involved in ideological questions.
That has always been the dirty little secret about Bob Dole throughout his campaign for the presidential nomination. He is conservative but also someone who believes that government has legitimate functions to perform even if not as many functions as the Democrats might prefer.
The most serious disagreement of Messrs. Dole and Kemp over the years has been on their approaches to economic policy, the one issue that has consumed Mr. Kemp all along. He has been a devout supply-sider convinced that the nation can grow itself out of its deficit with tax cuts; Mr. Dole has always been just as convinced that the deficit should be given the first priority and clearly skeptical about supply-side theory.
In this case, it is Mr. Dole who has accommodated himself. Even before he had settled on Jack Kemp as his running mate, the Republican nominee bought into the 15 percent across-the-board tax reduction and the theory that this would increase revenue enough so that dollar-for-dollar spending cuts were not required.
This is the core of the problem for the Republican ticket being crowned here -- that both candidates are, in varying degrees, bending themselves out of shape to accommodate either extremists within their party or someone's reading of the public opinion polls.
This has been true of Bob Dole throughout his almost two years of pursuing the nomination. Through much of 1995 he seemed to be responding to the threat posed by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a threat that proved to be essentially empty as Mr. Gramm collapsed in one caucus or primary after another.
Then, in the final stages, Mr. Dole seemed to be trying to placate the supporters of Patrick J. Buchanan, although Mr. Buchanan was never a serious possibility for the nomination, and the fundamentalists of the religious right represented most obviously the Christian Coalition. The latter was clear even last week as Mr. Dole agreed to a platform that didn't even include his promised plank on tolerance of other views on abortion rights.
No one expects politicians to be totally consistent. Circumstances change, and they have a right to change their minds. But Jack Kemp should understand that positions that appear contrived for the politics of the moment are founded on sand.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 8/16/96