SOME of the people attending a conference of mayors in Charleston, S.C., last week were disturbed at a speech delivered by Republican national chairman Lee Atwater. His remarks about mayors being a ``farm team'' for the party, and about recruiting black candidates to unseat Democrats, drew fire as inappropriate for a bipartisan gathering. Such criticism is nothing new for Mr. Atwater, of course. His brand of ``hardball politics'' is regularly - and often deservedly - under attack. Some of the Atwater-inspired distortions of fact in last year's presidential campaign were inexcusable, as was the recent Republican memo about House Speaker Thomas Foley. But questionable tactics and strident partisanship are hardly exclusive to the GOP. Democratic national chairman Ronald Brown, also speaking before the mayors, indulged in partisan slinging too.
A fundamental question is raised by current few-holds-barred politics: Is partisanship becoming an end in itself, eclipsing the goal of effective government?
When the scales tip too far toward partisanship, people and institutions are penalized. Rep. Newt Gingrich, who relentlessly pursued former House Speaker Jim Wright and recently won the job of Republican whip, may be feeling that sting in the disgruntlement of constituents who think his political battling diverted his attention from their immediate concerns. Mr. Gingrich quit his position on a key transportation committee in the House, hampering his ability to represent his home district, Atlanta, where thousands hold airline jobs.
For Congress as a whole, partisan combat can jam the legislative works; the collegial tradition, after all, helps to bridge personal and philosophical differences that would frustrate progress.
``Hardball politics'' has its place if it means forthrightness on issues and calling opponents to account. If it means opportunistic tosses at the head - well, one beanball generates another, and the cycle isn't easily stopped. Whether it's running for office or governing once in office, a generous spirit - not acrimony - should characterize American politics.