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GOP's anti-tax true believers remain outsiders

Earl Mazo, the South Carolinian who covered politics brilliantly for so many years for the New York Herald Tribune, had a wealth of stories about his state's colorful political character, the late Olin D. Johnston. One of them concerned the time when Johnston and his Senate colleague, Strom Thurmond, were taking part in a southern filibuster against a civil-rights bill. As Mazo told it, Johnston walked off the Senate floor one night when Thurmond had been in full cry for many hours about the sacred duty he was fulfilling in seeking to preserve state sovereignty.

Mazo quoted Johnston's judgment. In cleansed form, the line was: "You know, ol' Strom, he really believes that (expletive) stuff."

That story has been in my head a lot these last few days, as President Bush and his cohorts have struggled with the unholy mess created in the Republican Party, on the eve of the mid-term election, by Bush's budget-deficit reduction deal with congressional Democrats.

On Meet the Press Sunday, I very nearly disgraced both NBC and the Washington Post by busting out laughing when Vice President Dan Quayle tried to peddle the line that the Republicans now have the Democrats right where they want them.

The fact is that Bush and the administration are crosswise with the majority of congressional Republicans and nearly all the non-incumbent Republican congressional candidates in saying this budget deal is a good one. Only 66 Republicans in the House and Senate voted as Bush asked; 151 voted against him. And more than 300 others, who are seeking election to Congress on the GOP ticket, are against it, too.

Their main objection is that it raises the top income-tax rate and boosts the levies on gasoline, tobacco and booze as well. Bush went back on his 1988 campaign pledge of "no new taxes," but he couldn't force his party to renege.

Why not? Because, like "Ole Strom," they "really believe that stuff." Bush may have used the phony tax pledge as casually as he exploited the Pledge of Allegiance and prison-furlough issues in 1988. But he should have known that his fellow partisans would not be quite so cynical about it.

Recall the history. The move to slash tax rates began, not with Ronald Reagan, but with House Republicans, notably Jack Kemp (now secretary of Housing and Urban Development) and Bob Kasten (now senator from Wisconsin). They made the promise of 30-percent, across-the-board tax cuts the centerpiece of the 1978 mid-term campaign and only later sold Reagan on using it as the keynote of his 1980 presidential campaign.

Those same House Republicans, working through Reps. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Newt Gingrich of Georgia, defended the doctrine of ever-lower taxes in the 1984 Republican platform. They prevailed even when the Reagan White House, seeking some wiggle room for the president's second term, sent former Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis down to the Dallas convention in a vain effort to fudge the issue. The same band of anti-tax purists seized on Bush's phrase to cement the "no new taxes" language into the 1988 party platform as well.

Bush broke his tax promise because he faced the governmental reality that deficits would spin further out of control unless tax hikes were combined with spending curbs. He believes that stemming the deficit hemorrhage is not only good government but good politics; that it will produce a healthier economy in 1992, his re-election year and the year the Republicans have their best chance to regain control of the Senate and improve their strength in the House.

But he could not persuade the House Republicans, who have been in the permanent minority so long now _ 36 years and counting _ that they have lost the political discipline of thinking about governmental responsibility.

And that is the ultimate irony: Until the House Republicans can be given a share of governing responsibility, they will continue to raise hell with presidents of both parties. But as long as they act irresponsibly, as they've done again, they will probably not be given that power.

Bush didn't help them, but Gingrich and the others didn't help themselves. So don't expect the public to show much sympathy.

Washington Post Writers Group