Party rolls out all its old trappings Republicans pin hopes for future on ideology of past

August 17, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- The Republican Party that is meeting here for the next four days has all the outward appearance of what it was 12 years ago when Ronald Reagan, who addresses the convention tonight, launched his political revolution at the party gathering in Detroit.

It presents itself as the party of staunch conservatism, starting with its strict prohibition against abortion, first written into its platform at that 1980 convention. It rails against "tax-and-spend liberal" Democrats. It offers itself as the stalwart defender of U.S. interests abroad and of the victims of crime at home, and it denounces big government in Washington -- especially the Democratic-controlled Congress.

But within the core of the meeting are clear signs that the Reagan revolution -- which its architects hoped and believed would bring about a long-sought party realignment in the country, giving majority status at last to the conservatives -- has already stalled in its tracks.

Mr. Reagan's appearance at the Astrodome tonight will no doubt touch Republican heartstrings, but it will remain for President Bush himself to make the case for leaving the country's future in Republican hands. Reaganism under Mr. Bush has not been the same, either for voters or for many party conservatives who fault Mr. Bush for failing to adhere strictly to his predecessor's blueprint for economic health.

The Reagan revolution was supposed to do for the GOP what the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt did for the Democrats. But instead of ushering in a long reign of government management in the economy and social welfare of the country, it was to begin decades of hands-off government giving free enterprise -- and individual responsibility -- its head.

Under Mr. Reagan, who preached this ideology with a persuasive fervor, millions of blue-collar and other middle-income Democrats flocked to the Republican banner, as did Southern Democrats, cutting into the core of the old Democratic coalition anchored by organized labor. In ways subtle and obvious, the Reagan revolution also capitalized on racial fears of job and street security to maintain the GOP as a party with its welcome mat out basically for white voters.

Mr. Bush, who came to the command post of that revolution in 1988, continues to pose as its rightful heir and caretaker. But after four years in charge, the revolution has lost much of its steam, of its direction, of its optimism and its unity. There is dissension in the ranks with Mr. Bush -- never a favorite of conservatives -- cast as the hapless culprit, or even an impostor who merely posed as a conservative under Mr. Reagan as a route to eventual power.

Critics have accused him of betraying the revolution, chiefly in his 1990 budget compromise with congressional Democrats that obliged him to break his 1988 promise to "read my lips -- no new taxes." And while they have not seriously challenged his renomination, they have called on him to stand up and be counted as a true conservative by adopting a much more boldly conservative agenda for the next four years and campaigning all-out for a Republican-controlled Congress (although realistically it does not appear to be in the cards).

The campaign war cry that Mr. Reagan used so effectively in his campaign against President Jimmy Carter -- "Are you better-off today than you were four years ago?" -- has been purloined by the Democrats as a stagnant economy under Mr. Bush has made it well-nigh impossible to use his first-term stewardship of domestic affairs as an arguing point for re-election.

But the party's difficulties go far beyond the immediate state of the economy or Mr. Bush's handling of it. The whole premise of the Reagan revolution -- that deep tax cuts could, even in the face of sharply increased defense spending, spur unprecedented economic growth and well-being -- has been unmasked for what Mr. Bush as a presidential candidate in 1980 called "voodoo economics." The federal deficit has soared out of sight, and Mr. Bush has been reduced to blaming his woes at home on uncooperative Democrats in Congress.

After a first year in the White House in which his popularity surprisingly surpassed even that of Mr. Reagan, capped by a superlative demonstration of foreign policy leadership in rallying global support to oust invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Mr. Bush's popularity has plunged to an equally unprecedented low. His hopes of riding easily into a second term on the strength of the Persian Gulf war leadership have faded as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, once compared to Hitler by Mr. Bush, has survived to plague him.

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