White House Drops 11th Commandment in Rhode Island

The Bush White House apparently doesn’t believe in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou Shall Not Speak Ill of a Fellow Republican.”

Last week, Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, a liberal Republican who voted against President Bush in the 2004 presidential election, won re-nomination thanks in large part to $1 million the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spent on TV ads attacking Chafee’s conservative primary opponent, Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey.

So what did the White House think of the President’s party’s attacking a Republican who supports the President more than Chafee does?

When asked at last Wednesday’s press briefing for “an emotional or factual response to the Rhode Island primary yesterday,” White House Spokesman Tony Snow flippantly responded: “The Republican incumbent won. Woo hoo.”

AP radio reporter Mark Smith followed up by asking, “Is there any irony in the fact that the administration campaigned hard for someone who opposed the President on Iraq, on the environment, on abortion and a bunch of other things?”

Tony Snow said: “No. It means, unlike in Connecticut, we support our incumbents.”

Snow’s dismissive tone was surprising, considering the nature of the attacks on the conservative Laffey. One NRSC-funded spot slammed Laffey as “tax-and-spend Steve Laffey,” referring to Laffey’s having overseen a municipal tax increase in his first year as mayor, when the City of Cranston was bankrupt. Laffey later lowered taxes when the city was solvent. Chafee, by contrast, voted against the Bush tax cuts in the Senate.

Another NRSC-funded ad said, “Mayor Steve Laffey accepts Mexican ID cards that can threaten our security,” while the screen showed what the New York Times called “an ominous blur of dark-skinned faces.” Chafee, meanwhile, voted for the Bush-backed amnesty-immigration-reform bill in the Senate.

“Most Rhode Island Republicans were outraged and disgusted by the dishonest ads run by the National Republican Senatorial Committee,” Providence Republican City Chairman Dave Talan told me.

But the national Republican Party went beyond the negative ads to defeat Laffey. The NRSC also deployed its 72-hour get-out-the-vote effort, normally reserved for general elections. Six NRSC staffers traveled to Rhode Island to work on Chafee’s behalf.

The NRSC also indicated on the Sunday before the vote that it would not support Laffey if he won the primary. “If Laffey won, on Day 1 of the general election, it would be over for us,” NRSC Communications Director Brian Nick told the New York Times. When the paper asked him if the NRSC would concede the race to the Democrat if Laffey were the GOP nominee, Nick said, “No question about it.”

Nick also confirmed to me that the NRSC targeted Republican primary voters in Rhode Island with a taped phone message from Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R.-N.C.), the NRSC chairman, accusing Laffey of a “history of troubling and inflammatory behavior.”

At last Wednesday’s White House briefing, I cited criticisms of the NRSC’s attack strategy and asked Snow whether “this is the kind of campaign the President would countenance or support against people who back him on most issues?”

“The President understands that there is [sic] zesty ads in any political campaign,” said Snow. “Zesty. He’s been the object of a fair amount in his past.”

“Zesty?” I said.

“Zesty, z-e-s-t-y,” said Snow. “[CBS News Correspondent Jim] Axelrod has a dictionary.”

When I asked Snow if the President was aware of the commercials, he said: “I honestly don’t know if he was aware. This was something that was not operated out of the White House, as you know, and the President is not—the President, again, has been devoting himself to large matters. I sincerely doubt, but I will find out for you whether he was passing judgment on ads being used in particular campaigns.”

“Would you also kindly find out,” I asked, “if he was aware of what many say was an egregious stand by the Senatorial Committee—that’s spelled e-g-r-e-g-i-o-u-s—that if Mr. Laffey was the nominee, they wouldn’t support him?”

Said Snow: “Egregious, though, does not often modify an inanimate object like a stand, but I get your drift here. In other words, what you want to say is, is the President really unhappy that Linc Chafee won—is that the question?”

“No,” I said. “My question is, was he aware the Senatorial Committee said they wouldn’t give any money if Mayor Laffey defeated Sen. Chafee?”

“Okay,” said Snow, “I will—we’ll get to it.”