Washington -- BEHIND PRESIDENT Bush's hemming and hawing on the question of economic development assistance to the Soviet Union is, among other things, a serious domestic political problem -- the deep-rooted suspicion of Bush among the most devoted conservatives in the Republican Party.
There are, of course, good reasons for the president to proceed with caution in helping to bail out Mikhail Gorbachev. It is entirely legitimate to link economic help to commitments from the Soviet leader for changes in both military and political policies as well as economic measures.
But Bush also must be aware of the pressure he faces from the far right at home.
Although the notion of international communism as a threat to the free world is now a joke, some of the most devout conservatives have not abandoned it. They already see reasons to be distrustful of the president because of his willingness to kowtow to the regime in China and his hesitation about pressuring the case for the liberation of the Baltic states.
The best measure of that pressure is the contrast between the conservatives' doubts about Bush and how they would feel if the president making the decisions were still Ronald Reagan. Because Reagan never left any doubt of his ideological commitments, he enjoyed a freedom of movement that is far beyond what Bush is likely ever to enjoy. It is no exaggeration to say that Reagan was uniquely qualified to build a new relationship with "the evil empire."
The limits on Bush do not apply only to foreign policy questions. If, for example, the president were inclined to replace Vice President Dan Quayle, which he apparently is not, he could do so only if he were to supplant him with someone of equally impeccable conservative credentials. If, for example, he were inclined to soften his extremist line on abortion rights, which he apparently is not, he could do so only at the price of a firestorm of reaction from the right.
Bush also seems to be feeling the pressure on the race question. Despite all the talk about the administration's good intentions toward black Americans, the hard line on the "quotas" question obviously is not going to persuade many of them they have a reason to rush to their new best friends in the Republican Party.
The problem for Bush is that, as many conservatives see it, he stands for nothing. He has never developed a coherent political philosophy.
At different times, he has been on directly opposite sides of, among other things, the abortion rights issue and supply-side economics. He is the one who made a 180-degree turn on taxes.
This lack of what the cliche calls "the vision thing" is nothing new for Bush. After he won the Iowa precinct caucuses in 1980, his campaign chairman, James Baker, urged him to use the 28 days before the New Hampshire primary that year to spell out his views on major issues and build a solid foundation for his candidacy the rest of the year. But candidate Bush simply wasn't interested. So he spent the time yammering about political mechanics and how he had "the Big Mo" -- meaning political momentum -- until Reagan zipped by him in the polls and won the New Hampshire vote.
As a practical matter, the conservatives who are so suspicious of Bush have no obvious alternate routes to take. It is highly unlikely that the Democrats will nominate a candidate next year whom they would prefer to even an ideologically unsatisfying Republican. All the talk about conservatives "going fishing" on election day is far-fetched.
But the speculation about Bush's dominant political position assumes that he will be as strong a year from now as he is today. And that is an assumption that cannot be made in a political system as volatile as this.
It shouldn't be forgotten that Bush's approval rating had dropped 20 percentage points in the few weeks last summer before the crisis in the Persian Gulf developed. Although recent history would make it seem unlikely, it is always possible the Democrats will find a candidate forceful enough to be serious competition in 1992.
The threat to Bush is that the conservative criticism may add to the picture the Democrats want to paint of a president with neither definable goals for the country nor programs and policies to reach those goals. It is one Democratic suspicion many conservative Republicans clearly share.