WASHINGTON — President Reagan's progress toward an arms reduction agreement with the Soviets, coupled with his diplomatic initiative in Central America, has provoked a torrent of criticism from many of his most conservative supporters, prompting Reagan to telephone some key right-wing leaders and take other steps in an effort to assuage their concerns.
Prominent spokesmen for the conservative movement are accusing the President of betraying his own previously announced policies and commitments, especially his pledge to support the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. And some suggest that, in seeking deals on both arms control and the Central America peace issue, Reagan is motivated not by conservative principles but by the desire to revitalize his presidency after the Iran- contra affair.
'Deserting' His Position
"Many who wouldn't publicly criticize Reagan now are doing it," conservative activist Richard A. Viguerie said. "They're concerned about abortion, pornography, busing and economic issues, but at the core of the criticism is anti-communism. Across the board he seems to be deserting his anti-communist position he has had for the last 30 years."
From the earliest days of Reagan's presidency, some right-wing activists have never been entirely satisfied with the Administration's ideological zeal, particularly on foreign policy and so-called "social issues." In the past, Reagan's vast popularity inhibited open complaints, but now--as he approaches the last year of his final term weakened by the Iran-contra affair--these critics are becoming outspoken.
In part, this reflects intensified jockeying for position in the post-Reagan era, as well as an effort by some right-wing spokesmen and fund-raisers to find issues that will stir their followers. It is not yet clear whether the new criticism reflects deep unhappiness with Reagan among the rank-and-file conservatives who form his bedrock political base.
Reagan has become so concerned by the attacks from conservative leaders that he telephoned two prominent conservatives during his California vacation to discuss the situation and, said one of them, pledged to pay more attention to their views on policy matters.
Moreover, in another measure designed to placate dissatisfied conservatives, the President has begun resorting to presidential directives to implement social programs that he cannot persuade Congress to pass. Recently, for example, the Health and Human Services Department announced tough new regulations designed to drastically restrict the ability of 4,500 federally funded family-planning clinics to give their patients information about abortion.
And only Thursday, Reagan signed an executive order requiring government agencies to assess all federal programs, including welfare, housing and education, for their impact on families. The White House is also considering executive orders that would ban the sale of pornographic material on military bases and require all federal agencies and departments to assess whether proposed programs could be handled more appropriately by state and local governments.
If the conservative dissatisfaction does not run too deep or spread, Reagan may succeed in placating the critics, GOP sources said. Otherwise, the substantial problems already facing the remainder of his presidency could become more difficult to manage.
Dealing With Democrats
A rift in his own party would especially complicate his problem of dealing with a Democratic-controlled Congress. And, as one conservative activist put it: "Every President needs a base of political support, and the first rule of politics is to protect your base. If you don't, those who would oppose your policies will say: 'Look, even the rock-ribbed supporters are not on board; now is the time to take the initiative.' "
A major concern of Reagan strategists is that unless his right-wing critics can be pacified, they will oppose--and perhaps help defeat--Senate ratification of any arms reduction agreement the President may reach with the Soviets.
With conservative leaders railing against "the arms control frenzy" and "getting a treaty at any cost," Reagan--although avoiding his harsh "evil empire" talk of the past--recently has attacked Moscow over Afghanistan and Nicaragua and has called on Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
But many longtime conservative activists are not buying Reagan's rhetoric. "The emperor has no clothes on; just about every conservative I know is now acknowledging it," said Viguerie, former publisher of the Conservative Digest.
'A Recipe for Disaster'
Writing in the National Review, John P. Roche suggested that Reagan needs an arms control deal to revive his presidency in the wake of the Iran-contra affair and said the U.S.-Soviet arms reduction package under consideration is "a recipe for long-term disaster."