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Activists Moving to Forge a New Conservative Creed : Republicans: The Reagan-era image of unity has cracked open. Confrontation is between generations.

July 04, 1992|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

President Bush has had little luck solidifying beliefs within his party. Despite the conservative nature of his Administration, Bush continues to be mistrusted by many on the right who consider him willing to abandon heartfelt tenets--like his 1988 pledge not to raise taxes. And he is struggling just to come to grips with a message for his immediate campaign, much less a future blueprint for conservatives.

The President's political breeding is privately scorned by many younger GOP conservatives, who think of themselves as a more diverse and inclusive crowd than the upper-crust Republican stream which spawned Bush.

"You've got the born-on-third-base Republicans--George Bush represents that," said one prominent Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The 'We-know-what's-best-Establishment,' here to serve the public at large, all male, all white conservatives.

"The new breed Reagan brought in includes a lot of Catholics, Jews, Hispanics, not born to great wealth but maybe acquired wealth, and that is what the Republican Party has become."

The thinking of that "new breed" has been molded by the times in which they have lived, and the result is a sea change in conservative attitudes toward government. While the Depression and World War II spawned a frugal, defense-dominated group of conservatives, the 1960s and its wrenching upheaval unalterably defined many younger Republicans as willing to accept a positive social role for government.

"Younger conservatives recognize that government is here to stay and we have to find ways to use it to our advantage--that government is not necessarily evil and we have to look at it in constructive ways," said the 45-year-old Quayle.

Speaking specifically of the 1960s civil rights struggles, he said, "I just don't know of anybody in my generation that actually thinks the civil rights legislation is a bad idea. . . . That is generational."

Merksamer has a more specific theory--thus far untested on his peers--that today's crop of younger conservatives was molded most of all by a Democrat--John F. Kennedy, the President of their adolescence.

"Here was this young, youthful guy who wanted to get this country moving again, who talked about a strong internationalist foreign policy where America would lead the world, who evoked leadership in every of his utterances. The fact of the matter is, he had a wonderful message," said the Sacramento attorney.

"Those were our junior high and high school years. And by today's standards, Kennedy would be a neoconservative."

Ironically, Reagan's assault against government also caused the new generation of conservatives to temper their rhetoric about eradicating it--on the grounds that if Reagan could not manage to tame the beast, who can?

"We need to break away from simple and unhelpful dichotomies like big government and no government and try to strike a middle ground," said Bennett. "If you couldn't do it with Ronald Reagan, who could you do it with? Let's have a reality check here."

The crux of the debate over what will be conservative orthodoxy is being played out across the fields of foreign, economic and social policy.

While emphasis on foreign policy has declined with the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the younger Republican activists advocate an assertive role for the United States. Few overtly suggest continuing the levels of either military spending or foreign aid reached in the last three GOP Administrations, but most prefer to see America "engaged," in Quayle's words.

"Not to say that we're going to be the policemen of the world, but our presence means increased peace and stability," the vice president said in an interview.

Buchanan, in contrast, advocated cutting all foreign aid and returning to U.S. soil troops currently stationed overseas. He insists that economics will force future conservatives his way.

"George Bush is the last of the World War II generation, and I think he is still living in a sense in the past," said Buchanan, who at 53 is 15 years younger than the President. "I mean, they're not going to keep 150,000 troops in Germany. It's just not going to happen."

But while Buchanan opposed the Persian Gulf War, few mainline conservatives followed suit and the prevailing opinion seems headed against him.

"The future is not going to be dominated by a country that practices isolation," said Texas Sen. Gramm. "That debate was settled . . . by the attack on Pearl Harbor."

Conservative economic policy came under challenge from Buchanan, who insists that the United States champion its own industries instead of backing free trade--the Reagan-Bush position. While most conservatives still favor free trade and an unfettered economy, the unyielding recession has given some the second thoughts expressed by Paul Erickson, Buchanan's former political director.

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