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Kemp and Bennett defy GOP lockstep for principle's sake

President Clinton applauded two well-known Republicans, William Bennett and Jack Kemp, at his press conference last Friday. So should we all. They stood up against know-nothingism in California, condemning the Illegal Immigrant Proposition (No. 187), which is very popular among angry Californians who are sure that somebody else is to blame for their sluggish economy and bad mood. In this season of muck and slime and meanness, it was a reviving glimpse of principle and bipartisanship.

Kemp is a profile in courage because he's a once and future presidential candidate and California is the largest state. Bennett, who forswore national ambitions, risked the disfavor of admiring right-wingers, like California Senate candidate Michael Huffington, who has used Bennett's Book of Virtues as a campaign manual yet supported the gross law when he finally learned what it was.

Republicans have marched in lockstep this year, and Gov. Pete Wilson, a quiet, buttoned-down Republican demagogue, was quite startled that two prominent brethren took exception to a proposition that would create a state of informers. Children would be expected to turn in parents who had no papers. Nurses in clinics and teachers in schools would have an obligation to report children they suspected of being illegally present.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic incumbent who is in a fierce contest with Huffington, came out against the proposition _ knowing, she said, it could cost her the election. In today's nasty climate, it well could.

Kemp says he has received private commendations from Republicans for taking a stand, but more expletives and threats that if he runs nationally he can "forget about California."

Both he and Bennett, his fellow director of Empower America, have been accused of disloyalty to Wilson, who is expected to win easily over Kathleen Brown, daughter and sister of previous Democratic governors. Wilson dismissed their objections as what could be expected of a pair who dwell in "out-of-touch" Washington.

Kemp and Bennett made the point that 187 is not only unconstitutional but also un-Republican. The party has been historically opposed to the creation of enormous bureaucracies such as the proposition would necessitate. It also leads to such breathtakingly discriminating suggestions as one offered by a state assemblyman, who proposed identification cards for Hispanics only. Kemp thinks it's the worst kind of scapegoating.

Bennett and Kemp don't think it's good for the country _ or the party _ to exclude children from public schools; it would of course be against the law if the child had been born here into citizenship. Denying illegals health care is a risky proposition and bad for public health. Kemp, in his congressional career and later as HUD secretary, has always been for inclusion in politics. Bennett thinks 187 fosters racism, which is "poison in democracy."

What is remarkable about their dissent is that their party has put such a premium on unity this year. The prospect of majorities in both houses of Congress supersedes all other considerations. GOP Senate leader Bob Dole campaigned flat-out for Oliver North. He may be under the impression that a grateful Sen. Ollie would be a docile back-bencher instead of a separate power center with millions in his pockets and a national following. Only Sen. John Warner of Virginia has stood up to his party about the folly and shame of seating North in the Senate.

The idea of someone considering other people's feelings _ that is, Mexican immigrants who were once invited into California as seasonal guest workers _ distinguishes Kemp and Bennett. This is a nasty time of negative ads and brutal snubs. Ask President Clinton. Fellow Democrat Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, one of the many fleeing the leader of his party, said cuttingly, in answer to a question about inviting Clinton, that he has "something better _ I've got Garth Brooks," the country singer. That's nice talk about the leader of the Western world.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was administered by House Speaker Tom Foley, who declined to show up at a Washington state rally attended by the president. You might think that endangered Democrats who have that sinking feeling would go down in style, at least getting points for manners from mothers who hope their sons would show some class along the way and welcome their president in their home state.

Bennett and Kemp, appealing to conscience and defying mindlessness, kindle the hope that rational political dialogue may be possible in the country, and that once voters have emerged from the dank tunnel of this wretched election, they will consider restoring civility to public life.

Universal Press Syndicate

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