NEW YORK — The back-to-back shocks of the Iran- contra affair and the loss of control of the Senate are forcing Republicans to look past 1988 and consider what life will be like without Ronald Reagan.
For many GOP House members who traveled here for a two-day assessment of the post-Reagan political landscape, the prospect of the next few years leaves what Rep. Sid Morrison (R-Wash.) describes as "a rather hollow feeling."
"We were too dependent on Ronald Reagan," said Rep. Lynn Martin of Illinois, a member of the House Republican leadership who was elected on the Reagan tide of 1980. The party's faith in the President's personal magnetism, she said in an interview, "let us ignore the future . . . . If we continue to do everything the way we are right now, we obviously won't win."
'A Kind of Slavery'
Unless Republicans can come up with new and inspirational ideas, Martin added, they face the risk of being locked into a permanent minority in Congress that she described as "a kind of slavery."
Thus, with only months remaining before the 1988 campaign season swings into high gear, the debate that is being shaped within the party promises to be painful and possibly divisive. It will encompass the size and shape of government, as well as the breadth of its role.
"Our candidate (for President in 1988) may win without a clear vision, but I don't think our party can," said Rep. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the House's second-ranking Republican.
Most of those who are expected to run for the nomination answered the House Republicans' questions on issues at a 3 1/2-hour session Friday. They went before the lawmakers one by one: fellow Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President George Bush.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas was forced to cancel his appearance because of unexpected Senate business, and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. is scheduled to address the group today.
'We're Getting There'
However, Lott said, the ideas and themes that emerged Friday fell short of what the party needs. "I'm not sure we're there yet, although I think we're getting there," he said.
House Republicans have been on the front lines of the Reagan revolution, more willing than their independent-minded Senate counterparts to press the President's agenda on Capitol Hill and in their home districts as well. The congressmen so enthusiastically followed their leader that they were often derided by Democrats as "Reagan robots."
But their efforts to cloak themselves in Reagan's charisma translated into sparse gains in their outnumbered ranks. They have managed to add fewer than 20 Republican seats to the House since 1980.
And now that the White House is enmeshed in the Iran-contra affair, the GOP lawmakers feel "all of a sudden, the loss of our invincible leader or some of the invincibility," Morrison said.
Most Republicans say they must continue pressing the broad themes that Reagan outlined for them, but that legacy appears to be an ideological prism giving each a somewhat different view of the future.
Moderates like Morrison warn, for example, that the party should steer clear of moral issues and concentrate on pocketbook matters.
"We need to get away from dependence on the far right and come back a little closer to where America really is," he said. "If we're ever going to be a majority party, we have to lead where America wants to follow."
Morrison argued that pressing the so-called "social agenda"--issues such as abortion and school prayer--risks alienating young voters who are conservative on economic issues but do not want the government involved in their private lives.
However, conservative Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) said that view is "dead wrong. If the Republican Party did that in 1980, Ronald Reagan wouldn't be President . . . . We have had more converts from the Democratic Party on the social issues than probably any other."
Lagging Economic Sectors
Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a staunch conservative whose depressed rural district has strongly criticized Reagan's agricultural policies, said: "The big debate that needs to go forward (is) what we do about those sectors of the economy that have been left behind" by the recovery that has taken place under Reagan.
Here, he said, the party will have to weigh the most painful of choices: whether it wants to continue Reagan's drive toward free-market forces or repudiate that philosophy with a return to more direct government assistance and involvement.
But, although he knows which questions to ask, he said, "I don't have the answers."
One problem for Republicans, Lott said, is that Reagan's successes have lured Democrats "into the Republican vernacular" on economic issues. Both parties have grown comfortable with such buzz words as "competitiveness," making it more difficult to draw clear distinctions.
But conservative Republicans draw hope from recent calls by Democratic leaders, led by House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), for higher taxes as a way to reduce the enormous federal budget deficit.
The prospect of a tax increase, Weber said, will remind voters that "there is a threat out there."