In 1961, as liberals celebrated the early days of the Kennedypresidency, a small group of conservatives met in Chicago to plot their rise from the political ashes. In 1980, they celebrated over the election of Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed the most successful two-term presidency since Eisenhower's. Mr. Reagan's most important legacy was another conservative president, George Bush, but this summer, conservatives have been anguished at the prospect of a second Bush term.
Is Mr. Bush that bad? Mr. Bush did evict Iraq from Kuwait (something Mr. Reagan might not have done), and in respect to judicial appointments he has been Mr. Reagan's equal, naming judges committed to judicial restraint. And in a key if overlooked respect -- the preservation of the presidency itself -- Mr. Bush has definitely proved better than Mr. Reagan.
Refusing to assert and defend presidential prerogatives on a consistent basis, Mr. Reagan left to Mr. Bush a weakened office. To his credit, Mr. Bush, among other things, has used his veto power to block congressional advances on executive turf. For example, Mr. Bush's threat to veto the independent counsel reauthorization (Mr. Reagan twice declined to reject such a measure) appears to have ended that ill-conceived law.
Elections are not typically decided, however, on how well or poorly a president does in naming judges or preserving the presidency. And it will be ironic indeed if the beneficiary of Mr. Bush's efforts to strengthen the office is his challenger. The main reason for conservative discontent -- and in part for Mr. Bush's low approval ratings today -- lies in his weak engagement in domestic politics.
In 1981, Mr. Reagan advanced a comprehensive program that called for reductions in taxes, spending, regulation and the growth of money and the enhancement of the states and the private sector. While Mr. Reagan enjoyed his greatest success in 1981, throughout his presidency he pushed for his programs and, just as important, articulated the principles behind them.
Mr. Reagan thus established with the public a substantial political identity that proved resistant to change, even when he accepted measures (such as tax increases) that compromised his principles. Mr. Reagan's political identity helped win him re-election and sustained his presidency through its worst periods. By contrast, Mr. Bush has danced like a firefly from this domestic program to that -- when he has had programs -- and his arguments have often been feeble and only casually advanced.
The most charitable explanation for Mr. Bush's weak performance is that, unlike Mr. Reagan, who enjoyed a Republican Senate for six years, Mr. Bush has faced two heavily Democratic houses of Congress and for that reason has conserved his strength for labors abroad. But Mr. Bush also appears to have little interest in economic and domestic policy and, worse, seems to disdain the task of democratic persuasion, and thus the need to win consent.
Conservatives who had hoped to advance their policies are astonished that Mr. Reagan's chief legacy seems so removed from the fray and so anxious to take byes instead of engaging important debates. But what conservatives lament is also what is hurting Mr. Bush politically: It is unclear what in politics he really cares about, save for ''public service,'' his reason for being president and, so far, for being re-elected.
At this date the polls (which show Bill Clinton leading by 20 percentage points) are not accurate predictors. Mr. Bush can still win. But for him to win, he cannot put his faith in the GOP's strength in the electorate as a presidential party. He will also have to recognize that a certain amount of persuasion occurs in a campaign, and that to be persuasive he will have to argue as a conservative the strongest case possible for his domestic and economic policies.
The hard part (and the best case for him to retire after one term) is that this will require Mr. Bush to quit being himself. That is a tall order for anyone in any line of work. But Mr. Bush did say, in his January interview with David Frost, that he would do whatever it takes to be re-elected.
Should the president now spend three months making the best arguments he can -- on economics, school choice and health care; on civil justice, entitlement and welfare reform, and on Congress -- he just might win in November. Equally important, his mind would become focused and disciplined in the ways it must be if he aspires to be what in key respects he has not been -- a stronger, more successful, conservative president.
Terry Eastland, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, is the author of ''Energy in the Executive: The Case for the Strong Presidency.''