HOUSTON -- With the Republican National Convention ended, the strategy that its leaders hope will put President Bush back into the thick of the 1992 campaign is clear: Paint the Democrats as obstructionists on the economy and Bill and Hillary Clinton and their party as inadequate defenders of traditional family values.
The latter quite obviously is a smoke screen to blur Bush's failure to lift the country out of an economic slide in his first term and his reliance essentially on old proposals already rejected by Congress, with a new wrinkle or two, to make things better in the second.
All the talk about family values here amounted to a not too subtle suggestion that the country's moral standards will be in unsafe hands if the Democrats are elected. Bush has pledged not to raise personal questions about Clinton and to keep "sleaze" out of his campaign, but "family values" has already become a code word for reminding voters of just those questions.
At the same time, the strategy calls for sharp and relentless attacks on Clinton on his nearly 12-year record as governor of Arkansas, as well as on his successful efforts to avoid military service during the Vietnam war. Both of these matters are entirely legitimate and will be hit hard between now and November, but aren't likely to calm concerns of those who fear loss of their jobs.
Like President Harry S Truman in 1948, Bush will ask the voters to give him a Congress controlled by his own party, even as political reality strongly suggests that it won't happen. But by hammering at a House that has been in Democratic hands for the past 38 years and at a Senate controlled by the Democrats for 32 of those 38, he can argue that if voters really want change, they should be looking toward the entrenched Democrats on Capitol Hill, not the Republican in the White House. This argument, however, soft-pedals the fact that the GOP has held the presidency for 20 of the past 24 years.
In the absence of a record on the economy it can sell, the party made clear it will rely heavily on the standard conservative social and cultural issues to hold the core conservative constituency, now heavily anchored among the religious right.
Vice President Dan Quayle, speaking to a group of religious fundamentalists earlier in the week, evoked a roaring response by noting that the Democrats were discussing issues of family. "You know you're making progress when Bill Clinton talks about family values," he said.
In most election years, an incumbent party comes into its convention with an obvious strategy in hand -- to boast of its accomplishments and promise that things will be even better in the next four years. The Republicans this year were obliged to come here alibiing for lack of domestic accomplishments by saying their leader was too busy straightening out the world, but will get to problems at home in his second term -- if only something can be done about those obstructionist Democrats.
With many Reagan conservatives disenchanted with Bush after he broke his no-new-taxes pledge, and with the Ross Perot near-candidacy having eroded a significant chunk of his conservative support, this convention had to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort shoring up a base that should have been safely tucked away by now.
The convention presented a picture of a party talking principally to itself, as in its insistence on a strong anti-abortion plank. That position was warmly and even boisterously embraced by the conservative activists who dominated the platform deliberations and the convention itself. But it did nothing to reach out to the majority of Americans who, according to most polls, favor retention of abortion rights in some form.
As the Republican Party now moves toward the fall campaign, it is not enough to pump up the party faithful who have wavered or been discouraged during the past months of political adversity. The independents and Democrats who hold the election in their hands this year must be courted as well. Many are more worried about their jobs and jobs for their kids than they are right now about a decline in "family values." And the message that if they don't like what has happened the last four years, they should blame the Democrats in Congress may be a very hard one to peddle between now and November.