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Archives | 1992

THE TRANSITION: The Republicans; Looking to the Future, Party Sifts Through Past

By ROBIN TONER and

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There is something theological to the process now beginning in the Republican Party, as all the factions begin addressing the question that will drive dozens of conferences and political fights in the months ahead: What are the doctrinal foundations of Republicanism beyond Bush and Reagan?

Any Republican who watched the defection of working women, suburbanites, young people, moderates, Reagan Democrats and independents last Tuesday felt something more than simple queasiness.

The quest to redefine the Republican Party will play out in a variety of ways: It will be the subtext for the election of the next chairman of the Republican National Committee, a vote that will be held in January. It will be brewing when Republican Governors meet in Wisconsin this weekend, and it will be the backdrop for all the early maneuvering for 1996.

The debate begins with the question of why President Bush lost. Did he lose simply because the economy was bad and his campaign lackluster (the minimalist explanation), or because Republicanism itself had fallen out of sync with the times? Did he lose because he had broken with conservative dogma, or because he had been co-opted by it? Conservatives' Reasoning

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Some conservatives contend that Bill Clinton's victory last Tuesday was in many ways testimony to the enduring strength of conservatism; he won, they assert, as the candidate of welfare reform and economic growth, breaking with the old "tax-and-spend" image of his party's past and recalling traditional values like hard work and personal responsibility. Ronald Reagan was similarly accused by the Democrats of appropriating their populism in the 1980's.

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At the same time, these conservatives say, Mr. Bush muted his ideology by breaking his "no new taxes" pledge with the budget agreement of 1990. They assert that the promise was both bad politics and bad policy.

Losing its advantage as the party of lower taxes and economic growth was simply more than the Republicans could take, they say, particularly when its strength on foreign policy was less and less important to an electorate focused on domestic needs. "The core of the Republican Party always has been, and always will be, a limited-government, low-tax, economic-conservatism message," said David Keene, a conservative political consultant. Broader Problems Are Seen

But there are many in the party who contend that the problems go deeper. The social agenda of the religious right, these analysts assert, has simply gained too much prominence in the party, particularly on abortion. The "family values" appeal simply became too rough, too exclusionary, too out of step with the middle-of-the-road suburban voters who were an important part of the Reagan coalition, they argue.

"The ultimate betrayal of George Bush by the right-wing extremists is that they now blame him for his defeat because he wasn't conservative enough," said Peter Smith, the former Congressman from Vermont who heads the Ripon Society, a group of moderate Republicans. "Whereas in fact, the record shows the country finally got a look at them in the Republican convention and the country turned its back on them."

Even before the election, many Republicans urged the party to soften its stance on abortion; the 1992 platform recommitted the party to a constitutional amendment outlawing it. Those pleas are likely to escalate in the months ahead. "We need to bring the 'big tent' back on abortion," said Jim Pinkerton, a leading young theoretician in the party, alluding to the effort by Lee Atwater to signal tolerance ofo differing views on the issue.

But the Christian Coalition and other groups on the religious right assert that these issues were not the source of Mr. Bush's defeat. "The pro-life plank of the Republican Party platform was identical to the platform Ronald Reagan ran on in 1984 and George Bush ran on in 1988," said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition. "What did change was that in '84 and '88 we had a robust economy that was producing jobs and in '92 we did not."

Mr. Reed also says that a poll conducted for his group after the election showed that evangelical Christians and those who oppose legalized abortion delivered their votes to Mr. Bush. "If everybody else had delivered their votes the way we delivered ours, George Bush would be getting measured for a tuxedo right now," he said. Weld to Work for Moderation

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Mr. Reed said that evangelicals do not "seek to rule at the exclusion of any other group or wing," but many Republicans are carefully watching the religious right's activities at the grass roots. Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts, a supporter of abortion rights who is often mentioned as a potential Presidential contender in 1996, spoke of those efforts last week.

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"I think there is the likelihood the fundamentalist movement is so well organized that it can capture the machinery of the party," Mr. Weld said. "I'm going to do what I can to make sure that's not the only machinery represented at the '96 convention."

Some Republicans argue that the party badly needs a new set of "social issues" that will unite rather than divide. One possibility: the set of ideas spun off most notably by the Jack F. Kemp wing of the party. This is an effort to articulate a new post-Reagan domestic policy, one that Mr. Pinkerton, whose ideas were only fitfully embraced by the Bush Administration, describes as "the new paradigm."

Its philosophy emphasizes "empowering" the poor through programs like tenant ownership of public housing; establishing enterprise zones and tax incentives for investment in the inner cities, and providing more "individual choice" to citizens through measures such as education vouchers that could be used in public or religious schools.

The job of party rebuilding, of course, is not confined to intellectuals. Now that the Republicans no longer have the ultimate bully pulpit, much of the party's message will have to be carried and framed by Republicans on Capitol Hill like Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, the minority leader. Governors' Post-Mortem

The governors will conduct their own post-election post-mortem Saturday to Tuesday at a conference at Lake Geneva, Wis. "I see the governors playing a very large role," said Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina. "We're the people who can bring forward some ideas, some solutions to problems."

Also ahead is the selection of a new chairman for the Republican National Committee, which will be done at its meeting Jan. 28 and 29 in St. Louis. This race is just beginning, but among the many names talked about in Republican circles are Pete du Pont, the former Governor of Delaware; Haley Barbour, a longtime Mississippi strategist; Charles Black, a former senior adviser to the Bush campaign; Lynn Martin, the Secretary of Labor; Vin Weber, the retiring Congressman from Minnesota; Spence Abraham, the co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Howard Callaway, a party official.

The passions in the Republican Party these days are summed up by two memorandums circulating. One, from the departing Republican National Committee chairman, Richard N. Bond, to the members of the committee, announces that he will not seek re-election and takes note of Mr. du Pont, accusing him of "absolute political treachery" by "campaigning for the R.N.C. chairmanship several weeks before Election Day."

A spokesman for Mr. du Pont said tonight that the former Governor had not been campaigning for the chairmanship in recent weeks but merely talking about the future of the party.

The other memo, signed by the chairman of the Texas State Republican Party, Fred Meyer, and five other R.N.C. members, mostly from the South, asserts that it is time for the national committee to get back to basics and emphasize "building the Republican Party at the precinct, county and state levels so that many more Republicans can be elected to Congress, to state government offices and to local government."

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"We've become too big and too bureaucratic," the letter declares. "Our strategic decisions have too often rested not on what makes the most political sense, but on what makes the most dollars and cents for favored vendors and consultants."

Correction:

Because of an editing error, an article yesterday about the future of the Republican Party misstated conservatives' views on President Bush's pledge of "no new taxes." They contend that breaking that pledge by joining a budget agreement in 1990 was bad politics and bad policy, not that the promise itself was.

We are continually improving the quality of our text archives. Please send feedback, error reports, and suggestions to [email protected]

A version of this article appears in print on November 11, 1992, on Page A00022 of the National edition with the headline: THE TRANSITION: The Republicans; Looking to the Future, Party Sifts Through Past. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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