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'Conservative Summit' Denounces Bush, Much of GOP : Politics: Participants reveal significant divisions within the Republican Party on key issues ranging from health care to immigration.

March 06, 1994|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a sign of continued division within GOP ranks, it wasn't the Democrat currently residing in the White House who drew most of the fire Saturday at a conference of conservative activists--it was his Republican predecessor.

Speakers at the "Conservative Summit" convened by National Review magazine disparaged George Bush, lashed the GOP congressional leadership for "failure of nerve" and indicted party moderates as traitors.

Along the way, participants bared significant divisions within the party on such key issues as trade, foreign policy, health care and immigration.

At times, the assessment of the GOP's condition sounded as if it were lifted from a Democratic National Committee meeting.

"The GOP, in my view, approaches the midterm election as a party without a clear philosophy," warned former GOP presidential candidate Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, now chairman of the conservative magazine's National Review Institute.

Conservatives, added pollster Tony Fabrizio, "are making a big mistake if we look to the Republican Party for leadership."

Less surprising, President Clinton also took his lumps at the gathering--on foreign policy, economics, health care and social issues. One speaker accused him of espousing a "mushy multilateralism" in foreign affairs; another said that on civil rights a "quota mentality (is) running rampant in the Administration."

William Kristol, chairman of the Project for the Republican Future and an advocate of uncompromising GOP opposition to Clinton's health care reform package, pronounced the Administration's health care initiative virtually dead.

"It was supposed to be the poster child of his Administration, and it's become a tar baby," he said.

But the attacks on Clinton paled against the intensity of the recriminations against Bush, who was accused of squandering the political legacy bequeathed to the GOP by Ronald Reagan.

Du Pont set the tone with his conference-opening remarks, lamenting "the Republican catastrophe of 1990-92, when a Republican Administration enacted the Democratic Party platform."

Bush doomed the GOP, he said, by accepting higher taxes and signing civil rights legislation that was virtually identical to an earlier version he vetoed as a "quota bill."

"The Republican Party paid a terrible price for this deviation," Du Pont said.

The conservative broadsides at Bush's legacy represent more than mere disappointment over the loss of the White House after 12 years. They also constitute another salvo in an ongoing GOP struggle over the party's response to Clinton.

Since 1992, some GOP moderates have argued that Bush failed because he leaned too far to the right, particularly on social issues. The conservatives hope to blunt that argument by contending that Bush lost because he failed to adhere to Reaganite principles.

As Kristol put it: "It is important to get history right if we are going to get the future right."

Indeed, congressional Republicans drew almost as much fire as Bush or Clinton. Repeatedly, speakers ridiculed the GOP congressional leadership for allowing the President to seize the initiative on such key issues as crime and welfare reform.

"To the extent he has co-opted some Republican themes, it is an indictment of Republicans for not making our case seriously enough," Kristol said.

A particular target was Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), who has authored the most moderate of the GOP alternatives to Clinton's health care reform package. "The party is really in a sad state of affairs when we have to depend on John Chafee to be our moral leader on health care," Fabrizio said.

But if those attending the gathering were united in their denunciation of the Republican moderate strain represented by Bush and Chafee, they also displayed significant divisions over the future course of the conservative movement.

At one session, Elliott Abrams, an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan Administration, clashed with Angela (Bay) Buchanan, who managed her brother Patrick J. Buchanan's 1992 presidential bid.

Abrams insisted that Patrick Buchanan, Ross Perot and other conservative critics of free trade and active U.S. involvement abroad display an "attitude of fear or lack of confidence" about America's economic and diplomatic capacities.

Bay Buchanan fired back: "Protectionism isn't all bad if it is in the interest of American jobs, American interests, American industry."

After another session, Ralph E. Reed Jr., executive director of broadcaster Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, raised a warning flag about Patrick Buchanan and other GOP leaders advocating an ever-toughening position against immigration.

Emphasizing that his organization had not yet taken a position on the issue, Reed said the offensive against immigration risked driving millions of new arrivals into Democratic ranks.

"If the Republican Party moves toward a nativist impulse and becomes perceived as a party that wants to build a wall around America . . . , they could find themselves in the same political situation they were in with the immigrants of Eastern and Southern Europe," he said. Those Europeans, he noted, became a cornerstone of the Democratic New Deal political coalition.

Although the conference did reaffirm conservative consensus on several large issues--particularly opposition to new taxes and a commitment to social issues such as banning abortion--the proceedings provided ample evidence for Bay Buchanan's summation: "As conservatives, we are spread all over. It is time to stop this notion that we will all get together."

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