Deep schism weakens Republicans' core coalition Moderates at odds with religious right

August 21, 1992|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover,Staff Writers

HOUSTON -- Whatever the impact of his acceptance speech, whatever the "bounce" he gets in the polls, President Bush is leaving this convention city with glaring fault lines in the coalition he needs to win a second term.

The most obvious is between two quite different groups of Republicans who were coexisting uneasily here for the last four days. One is made up of the moderate conservatives who were Mr. Bush's original base as a candidate competing with Ronald Reagan for the 1980 nomination. The other is made up of the religious right he essentially inherited from Mr. Reagan.

Neither group had reason to be totally satisfied with this week, although it is fair to say the Protestant fundamentalists took home far more than the others.

The moderates left the Astrodome with their longtime favorite enjoying the new momentum, whatever its exact dimensions, that any nominee can expect from a convention, but only at the price of swallowing their doubts about some of the party's

positions. The religious right could revel in the extremism of the platform and the obeisance paid to the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons, even if they were uneasy about Barbara Bush's tolerant definition of family values.

But a third group of voters equally critical to Mr. Bush's prospects for re-election were given nothing to attract their support. These are the so-called Reagan Democrats, the socially conservative, working-class voters the opinion polls show to be preoccupied, in some cases obsessed, by concerns about the economy. They crossed party lines to vote twice for Mr. Reagan and once for Mr. Bush, putting them over in much of the South and such key Rust Belt states as New Jersey and Illinois, but this time they are leaning heavily toward Democrat Bill Clinton.

The gulf between the two groups of Republicans was most apparent on the abortion issue as the party once again adopted a platform calling for a constitutional amendment to forbid abortions even in cases or rape and incest.

The convention managers and Bush campaign operatives managed to bury the issue in a tide of rhetoric about "family values" after the first two days. But Mr. Bush's support for the extremist plank is well-etched on the record, and voters in both parties will be reminded of that fact early and often over the next 75 days.

The differences between these Republican blocs were not limited to abortion, however. The moderates were clearly offended by the gay-bashing in the platform, the religious overtones in that document and many of the campaign speeches and even the attacks on Hillary Clinton.

The gulf is a wide one. Some of the delegates of the religious right were openly disappointed at the generously "soft" tone of the speech Mr. Reagan delivered Monday night; they much preferred Patrick J. Buchanan's call for cultural warfare, a speech so harsh that at least three longtime Bush supporters were in tears at the spectacle of what the Republican Party had become.

The fundamental difference between these Republicans is in their view of politics. The mainstream Republicans identify themselves ideologically largely in terms of their differences with Democrats on their attitude toward government activism.

Only slightly oversimplified, the first priority for these Republicans is reducing both government spending and the influence of government in the marketplace attempting to stimulate the economy.

By contrast, the Republicans of the religious right are focused almost entirely on questions of personal morality brought together under the term "family values." They consider Democratic liberals not only wrong in their commitment to government activism but morally wrong in their social attitudes. As one delegate from the Christian Coalition angrily told a reporter on the convention floor: "You can't be a Christian and a Democrat" -- a definition that seems to leave out, among others, former President Jimmy Carter.

What is most politically significant about the attitudes of this group is that they seem to have so little interest in the economic issues that the opinion surveys show to be the first concern of the electorate. What this means is that the president will be forced into a bifurcated campaign that must emphasize both social and cultural conservatism as well as practical problems of how to provide more jobs and deal with international economic problems.

This was the core of the problem for Mr. Bush in the convention -- a failure to reach any genuine consensus on the priorities for the campaign ahead. Everyone seemed to agree on their admiration for "family values" but not on what that term means.

Is it the Bush family tableau? Or the snide cracks about Bill Clinton's personal life? Or both?

Meanwhile, on the economy there was a consensus that the Democratic Congress was just as much to blame as the president and probably even more, but nothing approaching consensus on what the solutions should be.

Will it be enough to tie a can to Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady and Budget Director Richard G. Darman? Or does the situation require a total break with the policies of the past?

It has become an article of faith that nominating conventions no longer serve their original purpose in a time when every state chooses its delegates with a primary or precinct caucus system.

But conventions still send a message about the makeup of the party and its health. And the message from Houston has been that George Bush, leaving town with the cheers ringing in his ears, has miles to go before he is politically healthy.

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