GOP says its problems went right to the top ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 09, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- While Republican leaders no doubt regret the loss of the White House, many conservatives within the party are finding solace in the congressional and state legislative results -- and even in the imminent departure of President Bush.

For openers, the GOP avoided election of a filibuster-proof Senate. And while Republicans did not make the gains in the redistricted House that they hoped for, they did pick up a handful of seats as well as winning control of nine new state legislative chambers.

To be sure, losers of the big race always look to smaller successes for solace. In doing so this time, they are making a commentary, intentionally or not, on the weakness of the president. These results, says Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, "suggest the problem was much more at the top than at the bottom."

This is another way of saying that the Reagan Revolution, left in the custody of Bush, is not dead politically even if the custodian is. "There is a lot of talk about putting the Reagan Revolution back together," Weyrich says. "Bush was definitely not a Reagan, not even a second-rate Reagan."

Such views finesse the fact that the failures of Reaganomics came home to roost on Bush's watch. But there is no doubt that many Reaganites hold Bush responsible for the loss of public confidence, starting with his broken "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. Reagan raised taxes several times during his years in the White House but voters seemed not to notice or care. Bush guaranteed that they noticed by his categorical rhetoric.

Republicans are also taking solace in the fact that Bill Clinton won the presidency with only 43 percent of the popular vote. Many see fertile ground -- among the approximately 19 percent who voted for Ross Perot -- for reviving the Reagan Revolution in 1996.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole says Clinton has not won a "mandate" because 57 percent of the voters -- Bush's 38 plus Perot's 19 -- cast their ballots against him. That is a reach, inasmuch as Perot voters in the networks' exit polls indicated they would have been split about evenly between Clinton and Bush had Perot not been on the ballot.

The vacuum at the top of the party -- which Dole has already indicated he expects to fill as the party's ranking elected official -- is by all accounts going to set off an intramural struggle in the GOP. The combatants will include traditional, old-line Republicans of the Bush and Dole stripe, the supply-siders like Jack Kemp, and the religious politicos in the manner of Pat Robertson.

But such a struggle isn't likely to be overly ideological, because each of these factions is now clearly conservative. There is no liberal wing in the party anymore worth the mention.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, faults the Bush campaign for seeming not to understand that the core of the Reagan coalition that Bush inherited was the Reagan Democrats -- the mostly white, blue-collar, middle-class workers who turned away from their party as more interested in taking care of the poor and minorities than themselves.

Keene says the Clinton campaign won because it zeroed in on these voters, with Clinton speaking directly to middle-class needs and desires, while Bush failed to strike the chord with them that Reagan had played so effectively for eight years.

It is convenient for Republicans to tell themselves that Bush and not the party as a whole was to blame, because that view enables them to chug along with the conviction that selection of the next presidential nominee can solve the problem and put the GOP back in power in 1996.

But Clinton, having returned the Reagan Democrats to the fold, isn't likely to turn his back on them. The real opportunity for the Republican Party, Weyrich says, is in winning over the Perot voters. They were looking for change this year, and if Clinton doesn't fill the bill for them, they will be ripe for plucking by the 1996 Republican nominee -- if by then that nominee has a message of change.

Perot, however, was making noises on election night about continuing his "movement" with himself, as ever, guided by the desires of "the American people." If so, the GOP recovery will be more complicated than simply finding a better candidate than George Bush in 1996.

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