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New Right gropes for old momentum. Disappointed by Reagan, movement leaders plot political comeback

By Peter OsterlundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 27, 1987



Washington

A decade ago a band of conservative activists roared out of right field and shook up the game of American politics. They flexed their muscles in the 1978 congressional campaign, then won the season in 1980, helping to bench liberal lawmakers by the teamful and elevate to the presidency a politician who spoke their language.

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Now, with the Reagan era near its end, the members of the New Right do not know what to do next. Many have long been disappointed with the President and his administration, but recent developments - the stirrings of d'etente with the Soviets, for example, and a White House agreement with Congress to raise taxes - have deepened their sense of disillusionment and even betrayal.

At the same time, their movement is becalmed. Fund raising is off, and the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), once the conservative movement's right fist, is racked by dissent. Surveys depict a younger generation with views antithetical to the New Right's social agenda. The stock market plunge has intensified doubts about the supply-side economic theory the New Right championed.

Most bitter for many conservatives, the leading candidate to replace President Reagan at the head of the Republican ticket is not Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, the standard-bearer of the New Right, but Vice-President George Bush, a symbol of establishment Republicanism.

Conservative leaders, sensing that their movement has lost its power, are groping for ways to recapture the momentum of yore. They have begun to close ranks and plot strategy for the 1988 campaign. Their task is not an easy one, however. Theories abound, but many conservatives are hard pressed to say precisely what has gone wrong and why, or how the movement's problems ought to be addressed.

``There's something out there that's different - something that's gone awry, something that's gone wrong,'' says Richard Viguerie, a pioneer of the direct-mail fund-raising techniques that helped fuel many of the New Right's most spectacular successes. ``Things aren't working the way they used to.''

The seeds of the New Right can be traced from the end of the McCarthy era, but it began to emerge as a political force while the Republican Party struggled to recover from the Watergate scandal.

Then several factors conspired to transport the New Right from the fringe to the center of a national debate over the country's future. These included the public perception of growing irresolution in US foreign policy, the alienation of conservative blue-collar and fundamentalist Christians from the Democratic Party, and an anemic economy.

Ronald Reagan rode to the presidency in 1980 on public dissatisfaction over such disparate issues as abortion-on-demand, income-tax bracket creep and the Panama Canal treaty. Republicans captured a Senate majority and felt they had come close to doing so in the House of Representatives.

All of which led to a problem. ``The decline of the movement began with the success of the Reagan presidency,'' says Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, one of the conservatives who was swept into office with Reagan. ``The grass roots looked to the White House and said, `We're taken care of.'''

The grass roots were mistaken. Republicans suffered reversals in 1982 and logged a disappointing performance in the 1984 congressional races. By the time the Democrats recaptured the Senate last fall, administration officials rarely mentioned the proposed balanced budget amendment, legislation to reintroduce school prayer or ban abortion, and other conservative priorities on which Reagan had once campaigned.

``It all precipitated a further decline,'' says Howard Phillips, president of the Conservative Caucus, one of the first New Right political-action committees. ``The abandonment of the conservative agenda inculcated a sense of futility among conservatives.''