Busting the Boomlet: Why Nunn Isn't the One

Article excerpt

Instead of "What does Jesse Jackson want?" the operative political question of the 1988 presidential campaign may now be, "What doesn't Jesse Jackson want?" One thing Jesse Jackson may not want-and may well be able to prevent -is Senator Sam Nunn serving as Michael Dukakis's running mate.

Nunn and Jackson are the polar opposites of the Democratic Party. Jackson advocates expanding the party's base and distinguishing it from the Republicans. Nunn, the Democrat from Georgia who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the great white hope of the party's small but vocal conservative faction. Nunn counsels that the Democrats' chances of capturing the White House in 1988 depend on winning back white male voters in the South and on closing the perceived difference between Democrats and Republicans.

Nunn, a current sweetheart of the Great Mentioner, is enjoying a vice-presidential boomlet, as Dukakis appears the likely nominee. Nunn has the blessings of many inside-the-beltway journalists and other regulars of the conventional-wisdom crowd. He has hinted that he might be interested in the number-two spot-if he could be Secretary of Defense as well. Thus far, Jackson has been carefully noncommittal on the subject of the vice presidency, for himself or anyone else.

Nunn would bring to the Democratic ticket a voting record that is remarkably pro-Reagan. According to Congressional Quarterly's annual analysis, Nunn ranks as one of Reagan's most reliable votes among Democrats. During the Reagan years, his "presidential support" rating has ranged from 58 to 70 percent. In 1985 he edged out Howell Heflin for the dubious honor of the most consistent Democratic supporter of Reagan in the Senate. Nunn never provided much campaign help to other Democrats in Congress until the 1986 Senate elections -when, according to Georgia political observers, Nunn's operatives were gearing up for a possible presidential race.

In the past year, Nunn has won much praise for his successful challenge to the Reagan Administration's campaign to dump the "strict" reading of the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty and substitute its own implausible interpretation. By doing so, Nunn complicated the Administration's effort to proceed with certain Star Wars tests. But the glow created by that accomplishment has led many observers to overlook the rest of Nunn's record and classify him-erroneously -as some kind of moderate.

In fact, save for the ABM reinterpretation fight, Nunn is an outright Boll Weevil conservative, whose much-heralded "moderation" is a phenomenon of the Reagan years, during which the political spectrum shifted to the right. Nunn, who supported George Wallace in 1972, earned his Washington reputation in the late 1970s by proposing to revive the draft and build the neutron bomb. In 1977 he led the rightwing fight against Paul Warnke, President Jimmy Carter's arms control negotiator. (Which is perhaps why Carter, in a not-so-subtle slap at his fellow Georgian, has been touting Jackson as a strong vice-presidential nominee.)

Last year Nunn opposed a Democratic initiative to cut Star Wars funding from $4.5 billion to $3.7 billion. He voted against a moratorium on antisatellite weapons. He opposed a measure that would have compelled the Administration to stick to the limitations of the SALT II agreement. He has also backed the MX missile, cast a deciding vote in favor of chemical weapons and supported military aid to the contras. In 1986 he was one of eight Democrats to vote against a plus-inflation-only limit on the Pentagon's budget. He has not been a consistent supporter of Senate measures involving sanctions against South Africa, either.

Nunn's reputation as a moderate is the result of a few highly publicized occasions when he tried to split the difference between the Reagan Administration and Democratic positions. For example, he agreed to vote for contra aid in 1985 on the condition that the Administration place the contras under "civilian" control, curb their human rights abuses and establish a university for them. …