Houston — As the Reagan era draws to a close, Republican Party leaders are taking a new look at the role of government. The party that enthusiastically embraced President Reagan's characterization of government as ``part of the problem'' eight years ago is signaling that it believes government must be a part of solutions. The philosophical shift is likely to become increasingly evident as Republicans develop their party platform this summer and campaign to put George Bush in the White House and more of their own in Congress.
The party's new estimation of government's role was evident at a three-day meeting of about 70 Republican congressmen that ended Saturday in Houston. In speeches and interviews, influential GOP leaders said the party's future lies in portraying a philosophy that is not antigovernment, but ``better government.''
The leaders frequently cited recent polls and surveys showing that Americans largely expect government to play a positive, ameliorative role in their lives. An underlying assumption of the Houston meeting, billed as the ``Congress of the Future,'' seemed to be that Republicans can attain their dream of becoming the majority party only by shedding their antigovernment image and steering a new, solution-oriented course for the future.
``We Republicans have to rid ourselves of the clich'es and platitudes of yesteryear and realize that most Americans don't believe government is the enemy,'' said House minority leader Robert Michel of Illinois in a keynote address at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center. ``Most Americans believe bad government is the enemy.''
Questioned later about his statement's obvious departure from one of the hallmarks of Reaganism, Representative Michel said there is a difference between what President Reagan says today and the philosophy he espoused when first elected.
``Sometimes governors run against the Washington establishment,'' Mr. Michel said, noting that another former governor, Jimmy Carter, also came to the capital on an anti-Washington wave.
``But I can't see that as the way for us as Republicans to make points with the American people,'' he added. ``It's too Neanderthal to think that government isn't a part of our lives - it is. The challenge is giving people something, what they want, for their money.''
Taking on a new role as partners in leading the nation to a better future is also seen as a way of energizing Republican congressmen. Many Republicans on Capitol Hill are frustrated, not only with the focus on day-to-day minutiae in Congress, but also with the back-seat, reactive role they often play as minority-party legislators.
``Many of our members are tremendously frustrated,'' said Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, ``just from the exhaustion, and then being in the minority. But as we discuss the future here and ways of working toward positive solutions, you hear people saying, `This could be a tremendous opportunity, I could actually be a leader.'''
The members of Congress divided into groups for five field hearings: on the future of space exploration at the Johnson Space Center; on medicine at the Texas Medical Center; on energy at an Exxon refinery; on education at the University of Houston; and on international commerce at the Houston Area Research Center.
According to Mr. Gingrich, the meetings with experts such as renowned superconductivity scientist Paul Chu, heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, corporate executive Ross Perot, and Houston oil man Michael Halbouty, reminded the members of Congress that theirs should be a position of leadership. ``If we can do things like work with leaders in other fields to forge a better future, then being a congressman becomes more desirable,'' he said.
``Congress does a lousy job of dealing with issues long term,'' said Iowa Rep. Tom Tauke, who added that Americans are ``hungry'' for leaders who offer a ``vision of the future.'' Nonetheless the lawmakers, operating in their capital mode, often seemed to have a hard time shifting away from their most immediate concerns.
At the energy field hearing, Rep. Harris Fawell of Illinois pointed out that the discussion was focusing on immediate policy issues rather than long-term solutions.
On a bus bound for one event, Gingrich asked several colleagues if they thought comparing the Republicans' weekend focus on ``our children's future,'' while the Democrats ``are busy campaigning on the solutions of the past up in Michigan,'' wouldn't be a clever ``press line.'' Not a half-hour later there was Gingrich, surrounded by reporters, offering his Houston-Michigan contrast.
The general feeling, however, was that Republicans need to draw more in line with the American public. At one closed-door soul-searching session, congressional leaders were given copies of a survey showing 56 percent of Americans agreeing that ``government should take a much more active role in dealing with the troubles facing the American people.'' Mr. Tauke said he thought that Democrats had done a better job of convincing American voters that they agree with the statement.
The lawmakers also discussed a poll finding that a majority of Americans want defense spending cut, while more than two-thirds say they would be willing to pay higher taxes if the money were spent on education.
With their likely presidential nominee, George Bush, saying he wants to be known as the ``education president'' and calling for increased federal spending on education, the Republican Party may have decided that the government that governs least isn't always best.