GOP Unable to Sit Under Single Tent

January 01, 1995|By KAREN HOSLER

Washington -- The problem arose the day after the November elections: How to quickly describe the political philosophies of the Republicans who have taken control of Congress.

To call them conservative is to say that they breathe. Nearly all claim that label, but it isn't enough any more. Conservatives come in such a wide variety of shadings that you can't understand their politics until you know what their personal priorities are.

Some conservatives are so opposed to government intrusion in private activities they wouldn't dream of regulating even sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll. Others believe that government should encourage and reward strict moral standards.

Common-sense budgeting -- such as not spending more than you make -- would be enough for some conservatives, such as New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici, who will chair the Senate Budget Committee. Others, including many Republican freshmen, believe the government is doing way too many things now that it shouldn't be doing, whether they are affordable or not.

Conservatives don't all agree on foreign policy. There are internationalists, such as Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the early 1980s when the GOP last held the Senate; and isolationists, such as Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who takes over as chairman of the committee next week.

Style and strategy also vary among conservative leaders. Some are activists, even combative, in the mold of House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich. Others, including incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, prefer to broker and maneuver.

Almost none of the Republicans, particularly the 84 GOP freshmen, fits the classic definition of conservatism as expressed by Webster: "a. a disposition in politics to preserve what is established; b. a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change."

"When the status quo is liberalism, that definition just doesn't fit any more," said David Mason, a congressional analyst for the Heritage Foundation, one of Washington's leading conservative think tanks.

Maybe the word "conservative" doesn't apply to these new Republicans at all, said Edward H. Crane III, head of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank advocating minimalist government that was once on the fringe but now seems closer to the mainstream of congressional thought.

"We call ourselves free-market liberals," Mr. Crane said. "I think that's what a lot of the Republicans really are."

The anti-tax sentiment driving many of the Republicans this year isn't even a particularly conservative idea, contends Tony Blankley, press secretary to Mr. Gingrich.

The Boston Tea Party

"Since the days of the Boston Tea Party and the Whiskey Rebellion, Americans have been rising up against unseemingly government excess," he said. "But it's not surprising that with the rise of conservatism over the past generation it would again be a dominant theme, just as it ebbed while liberalism was dominant the generation before."

None of this is meant to suggest that the Republicans face the same chaos of disunity as the highly factionalized Democrats. That beleaguered party, still dazed and dumb-founded from its drubbing at the polls, is trying to hold together members as different as Rep. Maxine Waters, the strident urban advocate from South Central Los Angeles, and Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a one-time "boll weevil" from the cattle fields of West Texas who would probably be a Republican except that his constituents don't trust the Wall Street types any more than Ms. Waters' do.

The Republicans about to take over both the House and the Senate for the first time in two generations are actually remarkably united. Years in the minority taught them to band together. The "Contract with America" developed by the House GOP as the centerpiece of their nationalized election campaign has given all the congressional Republicans an agenda they now describe as nothing short of sacred.

Even so, these lawmakers do not all look at the world the same way, and in those differences will likely come some of the most interesting debates of the coming year.

One major distinction between Republican conservatives is generational.

For example, Mr. Helms, 73, and South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, who at 92 is about to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are both former supporters of segregation in the South. That adds almost a unique texture to their thinking and the way they are perceived by others.

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