The battle of the scandals

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IT was only coincidence which found the Miami Herald breaking a lurid story about Democratic presidential front-runner Gary Hart just the day before a joint congressional committee opened its hearings on the Iran-contra affair. But the coincidence is symptomatic of a fluid political situation in Washington with old coalitions breaking up, new ones forming, and political fortunes surging, and disappearing, almost overnight. There really hasn't been anything quite like this since Teapot Dome and the downfall of the post-World War I political patterns.

For example, the old conservative right is making all the noise possible out of the spies in the American Embassy in Moscow because anything to do with spies is useful ammunition against the people who want to do some modest arms control business with the Soviets, which means primarily Secretary of State George Shultz.

It is also counter battery fire against the Democrats who are expecting, with reason, to strike pay dirt in the disclosures already beginning to come out about the sophisticated conservative operation designed to thwart the will of Congress against supporting contras in Nicaragua.

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Every impropriety and illegality which may come out of the Iran-contra hearings is ammunition against the conservative coalition which brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Every spy disclosure, and every new Soviet bug found in some US embassy is ammunition for the same conservatives who regard the idea of signing an arms control agreement with the Russians as ideological heresy.

In the midst of this battle of the scandals, Gary Hart has almost certainly shot himself out of the 1988 presidential running, posing thereby a new problem for the Democrats who suffer from an oversupply of young hopefuls (Biden, Bradley, Dukakis, Gephardt, Gore) who might become attractive presidential possibilities four or eight years in the future but who lack the experience and proven wisdom to be seriously in the running this time around.

Over on the Republican side of the fence, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada has come forward as an alternative standard bearer for the conservative right in spite of a potential scandal simmering under his own political feet, and expected to explode in June or July. His semi-candidacy was triggered by the failure of the Jack Kemp campaign to make headway over the past 12 months.

The Laxalt move brought joy, judiciously muted, to the camp of those who are backing Sen. Robert Dole. A Laxalt candidacy siphons backers and funds from both Vice-President Bush and Jack Kemp and virtually puts Senator Dole into the Republican front-running position.

A sound appraisal from a wise observer of the American political scene is that events are forcing both Democrats and Republicans to look for prudent, wise, seasoned and middle-road candidates. This could well mean Democratic Party bosses putting pressure on either Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York or equally reluctant Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia to come forth and reconsider. For Republicans it means a steady rise in the Dole candidacy's prospects.

When conservative Republican columnist William Safire writes a whole column about Senator Dole's alleged ``vulnerabilities'' (alleged sharp temper, failure to prevent the override of the President's veto of the highway bill, support for selling American wheat to Russia), one knows that the conservatives are worried.

Senator Dole has a temper. So did Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and so does Ronald Reagan. The White House knew the veto of the highway bill would be overridden. No Republican leader in the Senate could have prevented it. No senator nor congressman from Kansas could ever fail to support the sale of all possible US wheat to Russia, or to anyone who would take it, particularly not when wheat prices are at a disastrous low for the wheat farmer.

Bob Dole, Mario Cuomo and Sam Nunn all have in common a large dose of plain common sense. Call it pragmatism. They are doers of the practical, the possible, and the sensible. None could ever be called an ideologue.

Of course, the 1988 conventions are still in the future. It is conceivable that Gary Hart can recover from the headlines of this week and get back into the running. It is conceivable that the Democrats will find themselves having to take a chance on one of their attractive if untried youngsters.

But as of these early May days, it seems more likely that the uncertainty of the times will cause the politicians of both parties to give more thought to experience and common sense than to ideologies and youthful charm.

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