WASHINGTON -- A split between conservatives and the Bush administration deepened yesterday as a leading conservative think tank issued a report that strongly criticized President Bush's leadership.
The Heritage Foundation, in its annual "State of Conservatism" report, accused Mr. Bush of abandoning the low-tax, anti-regulation agenda of the Reagan years and allowing Washington's "power elite" to dictate public policy.
"We know Ronald Reagan, and George Bush has shown he is no Ronald Reagan," said Edwin J. Feulner Jr., president of the Washington-based think tank.
Mr. Bush's decision to drop his no-new-tax pledge last summer, followed by a poor showing by Republicans in congressional elections last fall, a worsening economy and division on the right over Persian Gulf policy, have combined to fan dissension among the president's conservative supporters.
Some conservatives are talking privately about challenging Mr. Bush in the 1992 GOP primaries, though even the most bitter Bush critics concede that such an effort would be largely symbolic and appears to pose no serious threat to his renomination.
The decision by Heritage officials to go public with such sharp criticism of the administration was viewed as a milestone by fellow conservatives, who noted that Heritage had built its reputation on its close
ties to the White House over the past decade.
Especially in the early Reagan years, when a number of scholars associated with Heritage were given administration appointments, the foundation enjoyed considerable high-level access to the president and such senior Reagan aides as Edwin W. Meese III.
"This is very surprising for Heritage," said one New Right leader, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. "The fact that they are going as far as they are is an indication of their constituency's disaffection."
Speaking with reporters yesterday in a boardroom decorated with black-and-white blow-ups of Heritage officials with Mr. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle and other prominent figures, the foundation's senior leadership insisted they had not yet gone over to the Bush opposition.
They expressed hope that the president could still be "rescued" from the clutches of "Dukakis-style technocrats" in the Washington establishment, but added that his State of the Union message and 1992 budget are the last chance to put his presidency back on a conservative course.
"We have learned some things about George Bush that we don't like," said Burton Yale Pines, senior vice president and director of research.
Mr. Bush has failed to articulate a broad foreign policy and is simply reacting to events on a day-by-day basis, Mr. Pines said. He faulted the president's refusal to endorse such economic growth initiatives as Democratic Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan's plan to roll back Social Security taxes, as well as proposals by members of his own White House staff to "empower" the poor through welfare and public housing reform.
Heritage's annual state-of-the-movement report, subtitled "Fashionably Out of Fashion Again," appeared to reflect conservatives' relief at having resumed their historic role as critics of government, after nearly 10 years on the inside.
"It's a pleasure in the current Washington of pragmatism and consensus to be considered outsiders again," wrote Mr. Feulner. He maintained, however, that he and his Heritage colleagues still would prefer to be close to the policy-making action.