HOUSTON — Houston. -- These are unsettling times for the conservative movement that has been the driving force in American politics for more than a generation. Old war horses and true believers, assembled once again at a Republican National Convention, knew in their hearts last week that the Goldwater-Reagan revolution has run its course.
It is a victim of time and its own success. The Bush years have been one slow dying, and even if they continue another four years the face of conservatism will be irreparably changed.
How it will change is a mystery even to the likes of Pat Buchanan, who may be the most visible of apostles but may never be the acknowledged successor to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
The Houston convention turned into a well-orchestrated four-day political rally that demonstrated the seasoned operatives who have run the conservative movement for so long have not lost their touch. But behind the hoopla, a battle raged between economic conservatives, most disciples of Barry Goldwater, and cultural conservatives who were welcomed into the big tent by Ronald Reagan. Their views cannot be logically reconciled, and both sides know it.
But the imperatives of an uphill re-election campaign for President Bush required an agenda that included spokesmen for everyone from the religious right to the libertarians. In show biz terms, the extravaganza worked. But the debate goes on, and it will be heard long after the November results are in.
To understand the disarray in the conservative movement, one of the seminal forces in the 1992 election, it is well to trace its beginnings, its tribulations, its flowering and its decline.
Consider, first, the 1948 campaign, the Truman comeback that President Bush wants des- perately to imitate. Thomas Dewey was the Republican candidate in that year, a product of the moneyed, internationalist Eastern Establishment that had controlled and dominated the GOP for decades.
Like Wendell Willkie before him, Dewey had beaten back a challenge from isolationist, balance-the-budget Midwesterners, led by Robert A. Taft, whose conservatism was of a classical mold. Resentment of Dewey, frozen forever in memory as the wedding-cake figure who twice led the GOP to defeat, was deep and unappeasable.
Classic Midwesterners, however, were never to have their day. Instead, resentment of the Eastern Establishment gave birth to McCarthyism, whose pathological fear of Communism, without and within, discerned a lack of patriotism even in Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower.
President Ike used Richard Nixon to contain McCarthyism by appealing to broader elements in the party. But when Nixon lost in 1960 to John F. Kennedy, a sea change began in American politics that changed history in ways then only dimly perceived.
Out of the West and the South, the Goldwater movement surged, carried along by a hatred of big government and big business, of all those elements of power that were perceived to interfere with the individual. It was Main Street vs. Wall Street, the small businessman vs. the Blue Chip boardroom, suburbia vs. big city bossism.
Taftism and its isolationist tendencies gave way to a sort of internationalist anti-Communism that blunted the cutting edge of McCarthyism. But more important, Barry Goldwater found himself running against nothing less than a Rockefeller -- New York state's Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. The symbolism was complete.
At the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco, Goldwaterites stomped Eastern Establishment moderates so badly they never regrouped and have virtually disappeared. Political observers who believed the conservative movement was vanquished when Lyndon Johnson crushed Senator Goldwater the following November were monumentally wrong. Toward the end of that campaign, actor Ronald Reagan made "The Speech" on television for the Goldwater ticket, and conservatism instantly had a new hero.
Fervent right-wingers had to endure the scandal-ridden Nixon interregnum, when pragmatism got a bad name, but all the while they could revel in the seamless transition from the Goldwater days to an era when Ronald Reagan, with seasoning as governor of California, was the uncontested leader. Mr. Reagan almost toppled an incumbent president, Gerald Ford, at the 1976 convention in Kansas City, and then went on to win the 1980 nomination and defeat Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
The conservative triumph was complete. With his sunny optimism, his lofty vision of America and Americans standing tall and his fuzzy gloss on specific issues, President Reagan was able to embrace and conciliate the various elements of the vast coalition he commanded -- probably the broadest coalition since FDR's New Deal. Anti-communism, traditional values, tax cuts, defense buildup, supply-side economics, libertarians, the religious right -- all were part of his base of support.