WASHINGTON — It's ironic that even as George Bush organizes the Western alliance for what could be war against Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf, forces in the Republican Party's conservative wing prepare to fight him in Iowa, New Hampshire and other points of the GOP's 1992 presidential selection compass.
U.S. policy in the gulf could become a factor--especially if it fails--because one possible Bush challenger, ex-Reagan aide Patrick J. Buchanan, is a critic of what he scorns as White House attempts to make America the world's policeman.
Bush's pursuit of a "new world order" is hardly central to the prospect of bloody civil war in the Republican Party. Conservative anger is more a function of Bush's broken pledge on taxes and his lack of any serious domestic-policy agenda. But in what could be a revealing signal of rising dissatisfaction, five men are already getting encouragement as possible challengers: Buchanan, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. duPont IV, retiring U.S. Sens. Gordon J. Humphrey of New Hampshire and William L. Armstrong of Colorado and state representative David Duke of Louisiana, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who drew 44% of the vote in October's U.S. Senate race there. Duke, apparently set to enter Louisiana's gubernatorial election this fall, has shown some interest in challenging Bush in a few Southern primaries. Humphrey is being courted to run as a favorite son in New Hampshire--where Buchanan has accepted an invitation to speak to the state GOP's big Jan. 16 dinner.
Some of this is to be expected. The last two moderate Republican Presidents were also challenged: Rep. Paul N. (Pete) McCloskey and John M. Ashbrook opposed Richard M. Nixon in 1972, and Ronald Reagan almost unhorsed Gerald R. Ford in 1976. The list of possible Bush opponents is surprisingly long, notwithstanding that a Persian Gulf success could quickly trim it.
The basic right-wing complaint--that Bush isn't trustworthy, isn't even a conservative--echoes a similar dissatisfaction with Ford 15 years ago. There are some new twists, however, including resentment of Bush's anti-tax infidelity; awareness that the bonds of the GOP presidential coalition hammered out during 1968-1984 are now weakening, and sensitivity to a growing intra-GOP tension between supporters of Bush's "new world order," who want the United States to be a global policeman--even if someone else writes the checks--and neo-isolationists, preoccupied with more narrowly defined national interests.
The upshot, then, is a strong probability that eroding bonds and common interests within the Republicans and conservative constituencies will support a 1992 challenge to Bush, principally over domestic issues and intramural animosities unlikely to be more than briefly subordinated--even by a U.S. triumph in the Persian Gulf. Not a few conservatives argue that Bush, preoccupied by foreign interests, doesn't even have a serious domestic policy agenda--to say nothing of one appealing to the right.
Burton Y. Pines, senior vice president of the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, has suggested conservatives could profit from running a third-party candidate in 1992, who would split the Republican vote, defeat Bush and get conservatives' juices flowing again as they combat a liberal Democratic President.
They could be on the right track. That certainly worked back in 1976, when Reagan's intraparty challenge to Ford divided the GOP and helped Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly win the White House. Carter was like Geritol for the conservatives. Spending four years in opposition and ideological self-renewal helped conservative Republicanism come surging back to power in 1980.
Not that 1992 is quite the same. The conservative era appears to be winding down. Returning to power in 1996 will be difficult. But for elements of the right, more basic considerations of regaining self-respect are also at work. Some prideful conservatives feel they'd be better off going into opposition than atrophying in a second Bush Administration.
Psychologies like this would breed serious conservative intraparty opposition to Bush in 1992--just as they did to Ford. Back in 1972, by contrast, conservative hostility to Nixon--fierce as late as mid-1971--eased in early 1972. When the Democrats nominated liberal George McGovern, pushing the election dialogue into a more ideological mold, Nixon himself took up liberal-bashing.
Bush might get a similar break in 1992 if the Democrats nominate a liberal such as Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York. Bush could also get a significant near-term benefit if he can force Hussein to make an unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. On the other hand, as Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas has indicated, the Persian Gulf and the economy together confront Bush with a make-or-break situation over the next few months.