David Duke's election to the Louisiana Legislature "shows that racism is still a virulent force that must be contended with," wails Ben Hooks of the NAACP - calling to mind big Ed Muskie's immortal observation when George Wallace whipped him 5-1 in the Florida primary, that he didn't know there were ''that many racists" in Florida. Muskie never recovered; the GOP cannot afford a similar self-indulgence.
What the GOP needs to ask itself is: How did a glib young man carrying 7,000 pounds of baggage, win a quasi-Republican primary, with Reagan, Bush and the entire GOP arrayed against him?
Clearly, Atwater's intervention backfired; it was overkill, bred of hubris in a national party taking entirely too seriously the press clippings about its political invincibility.
The natural reaction of any Americans, told by out-of-state big shots how to vote, is to tell the big shots where to go. Once the GOP made clear Duke was not its choice (whoever thought he was?), what was the necessity to invest the President's prestige?
The GOP overreacted to Duke, because it harbors terrible guilt feelings
from its exploitation of the Willie Horton issue; and it saw in Duke's candidacy a glorious opportunity to burnish its civil rights credentials and re-ingratiate itself with the national press.
For weeks now, the new administration has sought ways to show how determined it is to win black votes; and, occasionally, the pandering is getting downright funny. Thus, Good Old Boy Atwater talks earnestly about winning "African-Americans," and Jack Kemp goes on John Lindsay-type walking tours with Andy Young, while asking that Coretta King be ultimate arbiter of his tenure of office. Black conservatives, who carry scar tissue from years in the trenches with conservative Republicans, are not amused; they are getting disgusted with the new, trendy GOP.
The way to do battle with David Duke is not to go ballistic because Duke, as a teenager, paraded around in a Nazi costume to protest William Kunstler during Vietnam, or to shout to the heavens that Duke had the same phone number last year as the Ku Klux Klan. Everybody in Metairie knew that. The way to deal with Duke is the way the GOP dealt with the far more formidable challenge of George Wallace. Take a hard look at Duke's portfolio of winning issues; and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles.
Duke did not beat John Treen because he is an ex-wizard; he beat him in spite of it; he beat him because he was tougher on taxes and made an issue of urban crime, the primary source of which is the urban underclass; he beat Treen because he lit into set-asides and "affirmative action" in hiring, scholarships, and promotions, i.e. reverse discrimination against white folks who happen to make up 99 percent of his electorate.
What Duke did, after he turned in his robes and signed up with the GOP, was run over and seize terrain vacated by the GOP. Duke walked into the political vacuum left when conservative Republicans in the Reagan years were intimidated into shucking off winning social issues so we might be able to pass moral muster with Hooks and King.
When was the last time a Republican president attacked the injustice and immorality of quotas? When was the last time the GOP denounced social engineers and their endless plans for the forced integration of neighborhoods and schools? Where was the GOP when Yonkers was being kicked around by that federal judge?
The Republican Party, post-election, is getting wonderful press embracing Jesse Jackson, flirting with Ben Hooks, Andy Young and King. Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong at all; so long as the GOP does not pay for its press clipping in the currency of old principles. Right now, though, my sense is the GOP is throwing away a winning hand, and Duke is only the first fellow to pick up the discards.