Bush leans hard to the right again in Republican trade winds

March 05, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, whose political center of gravity has often shifted in election seasons, is now tilting hard right in response to a conservative challenge to his renomination.

Some question whether he's moving in the correct direction.

Virtually all of the president's campaign rhetoric and several concrete actions in the past several weeks, such as firing the controversial head of the National Endowment for the Arts and repudiating the 1990 budget deal with Congress, have been aimed at wooing the disaffected right-wing Republicans back to the GOP fold.

"We just want to make it clear that we want the conservatives to come back," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "We understand there is a protest vote out there, but we need their [the conservatives'] help in November and we want their support."

There is some doubt among political analysts, however, about whether this tactic can be effective in reaching the nearly one-third of Republicans who have cast anti-Bush protest votes in presidential primaries so far. Many of them tell pollsters they are more concerned with the president's handling of the economy than ideological issues.

"It hasn't worked so far," said Republican consultant Kevin Phillips. "During all of this advanced pandering, he's done nothing but go down in the polls. Maybe he's succeeded in convincing everyone he's just as opportunistic as some groups already thought."

Some Bush supporters fear that by courting the right wing so strenuously, the president may be alienating moderate Republicans who are just as crucial to his re-election and more likely to take comfort in a centrist Democrat.

"My concern is that we'll fall in the same trap the Democrats often do, which is moving to one pole and leaving our middle exposed," said Tom Rath, an adviser to the Bush campaign in New Hampshire. "There's got to be a message to the middle that they've got a home in the party, too. At the moment, that message is not being sent."

During more than 30 years in politics, Mr. Bush has often changed ideological suits to fit the climate.

As a young congressman from Houston in the 1960s, he was an early proponent of civil rights and considered a moderate. Before joining Ronald Reagan's ticket in 1980, he was a supporter of Planned Parenthood and opposed a constitutional prohibition against abortion.

He moved sharply right during the 1980s as Mr. Reagan's vice president, repudiating his position on abortion and becoming an arch-foe of government regulations.

Then, Mr. Bush laced his own presidential campaign with right-wing appeals, particularly the no-new-tax pledge and what many considered a racist advertising campaign attacking prison furlough programs.

But as president, Mr. Bush gravitated back toward the center. He emphasized environmental and education issues, signed a sweeping civil rights bill, and agreed to raise the gasoline tax and other taxes in a move to cut the national deficit and curb government spending.

Now, faced with a distracting and potentially debilitating challenge from conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, the president is riding the pendulum back again.

The sacking two weeks ago of NEA chairman John Frohnmayer, who had long been a target of conservative critics over federal grants' financing of sexually explicit art, was one of the first clear signs.

Another was Mr. Bush's disavowal this week of his compromise with Congress on taxes, an attempt to regain credibility with conservative voters that he had resisted doing until he was punished for his breach of faith in the New Hampshire primary.

Some view the administration's refusal to provide $10 million in humanitarian aid to Israel unless the Israelis agree to stop building new settlements in the occupied territories as a bow to Mr. Buchanan's anti-Israel sentiment and criticism of foreign aid.

The president has also gone out of his way to appeal to anti-abortion and religious groups. And he is highlighting issues he hasn't talked about since the last campaign, such as voluntary school prayer.

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