WASHINGTON — The harsh exchange between President Reagan and prominent conservative activists over the impending U.S.-Soviet agreement to eliminate all medium-range nuclear missiles dramatizes--and probably makes irrevocable--a schism that has been developing since Reagan won the White House seven years ago.
"There is a natural tension between Reagan and the New Right," said one GOP strategist who is himself a New Right alumnus, "because each helped to create the other" but they no longer operate under the same political imperatives.
The President, for his part, is not only pursuing what aides call his "dream" of eliminating all nuclear weapons but also seeking through the treaty to gain the favor of history and recover prestige lost in the Iran-Contra affair.
His conservative critics, meanwhile, not only view the treaty as bad national security policy but also see opposition to it as a way to mobilize support and raise funds while they search for a new champion--while Reagan, the lame duck, heads off the political stage.
When the tension between these conflicting goals reached the breaking point last week, it set off a rhetorical thunder clap. Reagan charged on national television that right-wing foes of the treaty "have accepted that war is inevitable." Conservative critics hit back, with one going so far as to call the President "a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda."
The split may exert some as-yet-unmeasurable influence over Republican politics in the post-Reagan era and may create tactical problems for some candidates for the 1988 GOP nomination, candidates such as New York Rep. Jack Kemp who have sought to woo the right-wing by presenting themselves as Reagan's heirs.
But for all the verbal fireworks, political professionals say the reality is that neither the President nor the right wing is likely to keep the other from pursuing its objectives.
Hard-line conservatives can argue that in opposing the treaty they are following a highly principled course that transcends their ties to Reagan. "Political loyalty is important, but it must take a back seat when the survival of freedom itself is at stake," said Richard A. Viguerie and Howard Phillips in a joint statement announcing the formation of the "anti-appeasement alliance" of conservative activists to build opposition to the treaty.
And though Reagan cannot still the critical voices on the right, he is considered likely to prevail on the treaty, given the broad public support for it reflected in recent polls, particularly since his critics by no means speak for all conservatives.
"There are conservatives who do support the treaty," said Victor Gold, now a supporter of Vice President George Bush's presidential candidacy, but who earned his conservative credentials as press aide to two former icons of the right, former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
"The people who spoke out against the President are always in some sort of visceral anguish," Gold said. Indeed, he argued that these critics need to sustain that sort of mood because they are nourished by political discontent.
The conservative activists "don't get anywhere with happy people," Gold said. "Happy people don't send in money to keep their organizations going."
Most Strident Critics
Gold and others point out that the most strident right-wing critics of the treaty and the President have not necessarily been Reagan's most constant supporters in the past. Viguerie, the co-chairman of the anti-appeasement alliance and a specialist in right-wing mail fund-raising, initially backed Illinois Rep. Phil Crane for the 1980 Republican nomination and then, when Crane dropped out, supported John B. Connally's unsuccessful candidacy.
And Howard Phillips, the alliance's other co-chairman, who uttered the "useful idiot" epithet, has long been one of the severest critics of the Reagan presidency, often accusing Reagan of not being sufficiently committed to conservative goals and principles.
One reason for the friction is that Reagan and the conservatives, like other partners who go back a long way together, often disagree over which of them deserves most credit for their joint accomplishments.
Certainly each side, the man and the movement, were well-suited to each other when they came together after the 1964 landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater, one of the greatest debacles the American right has ever suffered.
A loyal Goldwater supporter himself, Reagan had broader political reach than Goldwater. He was just as passionate and more eloquent yet less alarming to middle-of-the-road voters.
While conservatives benefited from Reagan's personal appeal, the former movie actor was able to take advantage of the growth of the conservative movement.
Emergence of New Right