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Sensing the Shift in Political Winds, Bush Drops the Conservative Agenda : Politics: The GOP right-wing feels increasingly abandoned, as George Bush hurriedly moves toward the center.

July 22, 1990|John Ellis | John Ellis, former political correspondent for NBC News, is a fellow at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Barone Center

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The conservative movement, which defined the politics of the 1980s, is dying. The conservative agenda, which helped shape the Reagan presidency, no longer connects with voters. U.S. public opinion has shifted, leaving politicians and activists of the right sounding tinny and irrelevant, most recently on the issue of flag-burning.

Were it not for the national Democratic Party's brain-dead condition, President George Bush might face a serious challenge from his left in 1992. As it is, Bush is already moving hard and fast toward the new political center, abandoning Reagan-era policies as he goes. Post-conservative America has arrived. Its political definition is up for grabs.

Bush, weather eye fixed on the 1992 reelection, has unloaded the right-wing political agenda with cold dispatch. This is partly due to the changes wrought by the 1986 elections. Unlike Ronald Reagan, Bush assumed the Oval Office with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress. Given the reality of divided government, it was inevitable that any purist movement-conservative agenda would fare poorly in the executive-legislative negotiating process. But Bush never had much interest in purist politics anyway.

What is most distinctive politically about the Bush Administration so far is the aggressiveness with which it has distanced itself from the conservative movement. On issue after issue, and in particular on those of historic interest to the right, Bush has positioned himself apart from his party's right wing.

The list is worth reviewing. Support for the aging junta in China for geopolitical reasons. Opposed by the right. Strong support for beleaguered Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Denounced by the right. Continuing arms-control talks with the Soviets despite Kremlin instability. Called "appeasement" by the right. Refusing to intervene on the "sovereignty" issue of such Soviet "captive nations" as Lithuania and Latvia. Decried by the right. Announcing willingness to raise taxes. Condemned by the right. Working out a compromise on clean-air legislation. Criticized by the right. Urging the GOP to be a "big tent" on the abortion issue. Deplored by the right. The list goes on.

The most sensational example so far was, of course, the President's dramatic turnabout on taxes. Ever since his famous lip-reading rhetoric became the sound-bite of the 1988 campaign, conservatives have held fast to the belief that Bush was at least tolerable on their most important economic issue--if not much else. When he tossed that out the window, the right howled like an animal in a steel trap.

This is understandable. The pledge of "No New Taxes" was the centerpiece of Bush's wooing of the right. GOP National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater, at a post-election conference of campaign managers and strategist, talked about the central importance of the tax issue for the Bush campaign:

"I felt strongly there were only two things that George Bush needed to do, other than stick with Reagan, that would preempt anybody from ever being able to get him on the right. One was to be hard-core on taxes, which, as you all know, he was. No. 2 was to be hard-core on the anti-communism cluster of issues. If he did those two things, no one could ever move out on him on the right and he would have all the freedom in the world to start getting giant chunks of the . . . mainstream group (of primary voters)."

No one would describe the President as "hard-core" on either taxes or anti-communism these days. That is not surprising to people familiar with Bush's "what's the deal and how do we get it done" approach to virtually every political issue. What is revealing is the powerlessness of the GOP right wing to mount any serious political reaction to the President's "betrayal."

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and its atrophy in Asia have been the major factors in the conservative movement's political demise. Anti-communism has been a fixture of conservative politics since the 1920s, allowing wildly diverse constituencies--neo-conservative Jewish intellectuals from New York and "born-again" Christians from the South--to coexist inside the national GOP coalition. Without anti-communism's pull, the diverse groups will become increasingly fractious.

Divisions are most apparent along class and cultural lines. The growing public perception that the very rich benefited greatly from the Reagan era, has intensified already widespread public doubt about Reagan economic policies.

That creates a new political dynamic for the Bush Administration. Their political job is to soften, as quickly as they can, the harder edges of the right-wing economic agenda of low but regressive taxation, debt finance and deregulation. This is what Bush is talking about when he calls for a "kinder and gentler nation." The Darwinian rules of laissez-faire economics are a political liability.

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