Kean: herald of a new GOP? Keynoter favors `inclusion,' riles the right
New Orleans — OUTSIDE the Northeast, few Americans have heard of Tom Kean, the popular governor of New Jersey. But here at the Republican National Convention, his name has sparked controversy and threats of a walkout. Mr. Kean, a soft-spoken patrician distantly related to President Theodore Roosevelt, will keynote the convention tonight. The speech could make Kean a ``national figure,'' says convention director Fred Malek.
Kean even wins mention as a possible vice-presidential candidate on this year's ticket with George Bush. Some of Kean's associates think he'll eventually run for the White House.
Yet at the New Orleans convention, Kean has become an unlikely flash point in the endless tug of war between conservatives and moderates within the Republican Party.
Conservatives have dominated Republican politics during Ronald Reagan's eight years in the White House. Their ideology has become the party's ideology. Their platform has become the party's platform.
Some conservatives now see Kean's starring role here as a slap in the face to the values and ideology that Mr. Reagan championed. They question Kean's positions on abortion, South Africa, and racial quotas. They fret that Kean represents a concession to the moderate wing - the Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller branch of the party - that dominated Republican politics for decades.
There is some irony, therefore, that Kean once declared in a Monitor interview that he admired Reagan more than either Nelson Rockefeller or Dwight Eisenhower. And he's no limousine liberal on issues like crime: He favors building more jails, expanding local police forces, and adoption of the death penalty.
But it is his ideas for expanding the Republican Party that have put him into the keynote role tonight. Those ideas have won widespread praise from some Republican leaders, including Mr. Bush, but those same ideas clearly worry some conservative activists.
Putting those ideas into practice, Kean has achieved remarkable election results in New Jersey. He not only won big, he broke records. In his 1985 reelection, he rolled up totals unheard of for a Republican - more than 60 percent of the votes of blacks, union members, and ethnic Roman Catholics.
Kean showed that in the Northeast, Republicans can compete with Democrats for virtually every major group of voters.
Behind Kean's political success was something he calls inclusionary politics. It's an idea he wants every Republican to hear. He argues that by courting blocks of voters ignored in the past, Republicans can eventually emerge as a majority party.
Some conservatives, however, such as Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, worry that Kean's victories come at the cost of compromise on what they see as bedrock issues like school prayer and abortion. Kean, while conservative on many issues, balks at parts of the right wing's social and political agenda.
As Kean once told the Monitor in an interview: ``Prayer in the schools I think is unconstitutional. I don't have any objection to it personally if you can find a prayer that isn't going to offend somebody. [But] by the time you find a prayer that isn't going to offend somebody, you haven't got much left.''
Some of Kean's other stands make archconservatives seethe. He finds abortion repugnant, but sees circumstances in which it might be necessary. He opposes the religious right's call for vouchers under which government money would be directed to church-run schools. He supported total divestiture of investments in South Africa by New Jersey pension funds in 1985 because any other course would be, in his words, morally indefensible.
Yet some Republicans find Kean's political message to be powerful and timely. As America's minority population of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians grows, Bush and other Republican leaders are stepping up efforts to bring them into the GOP.
At a breakfast yesterday with journalists, GOP chairman Frank Fahrenkopf said the choice of Kean as keynoter was symbolic and showed that Republicans ``are going to aggressively go after the black [and other minority] vote.''
Kean lays out his ideas in a new book, ``The Politics of Inclusion.'' He notes that the turning point for him came in his first term, when he rebelled at advice from Republican officials in Washington who told him: ``Ignore the black vote. You'll never get them anyway.''
Kean refused. He not only courted black voters, he started empowering blacks by putting them into a record number of policymaking positions. He put more new black judges on the bench in four years than any Democratic governor had appointed in eight years. And he went into black communities over and over again to listen to their problems.
The black mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson, caught the spirit of what Kean was doing at the time, saying: ``Tom Kean goes where I've never seen a white politician go before.''
As Kean explains it: ``You have to make yourself physically available to people who don't usually see a governor. ... I've been to various black organizations, black community centers, black churches that governors, senators, usually don't get invited to, or if they are invited, they don't accept.''
Kean originally hoped for 25 percent of the black vote. He got 60.
The governor says his political approach is based on the concept of opportunity - ``a feeling that we should be doing everything we can to create opportunity, particularly for those for whom opportunity has been denied in the past.''
For Kean, that sometimes means affirmative action to help minority and women's businesses win a share of state contracts. It means support for day care so that women can hold jobs.
Although Bush has praised Kean, Gerald Pomper, a political scientist at Rutgers University, says that in the short run, there probably is ``no future for Kean's message in the party.''
Conservatives are too successful at the moment to listen to his expansive message, Dr. Pomper says.