SOME critics considered William Bennett to be too in-your-face partisan in his government posts: chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education under President Reagan, then commander of the war on drugs under President Bush. In his new job, Republican national chairman, Mr. Bennett will have an opportunity to be as partisan and pugnacious as he wants. We hope he doesn't take that opportunity too far. Leadership of a national party is clearly a partisan post. But it's also a position from which new coalitions can be built. Past GOP chairmen have tried to broaden the party's appeal and show blacks and other minorities what a conservative, pro-growth philosophy of governance can offer.
Bennett's initial statements take just the opposite approach. His first pronouncements were an attack on affirmative action. While one can make a critique of race-based remedies not sufficiently related to past discrimination, it must be made honestly and carefully. The emotion-packed ads run by Sen. Jesse Helms in his recent Senate campaign in North Carolina fell far short of that standard. Bennett, who endorsed the Helms ads, is off on the wrong foot if he is making a subtle case for racial politics.
President Bush evidently believes that he needs as party chairman a tough, outspoken fighter who can battle Democrats for the rhetorical salients during the run-up to '92. It's likely that Bush also favored Bennett, an unabashed Reagan conservative, as someone who can repair the widening breach with the Republican right wing.
Though a scrapper like outgoing GOP chairman Lee Atwater, Bennett brings more intellectual candlepower to the job. Let's hope that he will steer the party toward a more substantive, issues-oriented campaign than Bush's vacuous Willy Horton, pledge-of-allegiance race in 1988. That's not just fastidiousness. A party chairman's goal is to win elections, yes, but it also should be to educate public opinion and to craft an agenda on which a party can govern, not just run.