The GOP and the `Peace Issue'

By , Godfrey Sperling, Jr., is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

A question asked of GOP House Minority Leader Bob Michel put the Gorbachev visit into US domestic political perspective: ``With the communist threat ebbing, where are the Republicans to look for their big issue?'' Mr. Michel responded quickly at this press breakfast. He said he saw much political hay to be made in the way Republicans are presiding over relatively good economic times.

``But what about foreign affairs?'' persisted the questioner, one of a group of reporters gathered for a press breakfast. Michel said Republicans would continue to pursue a cautious course in a world where many threats to US security still exist. He said Republicans would find a big issue in remaining the watchful party, which would insist that the nation keep its guard up.

Even as this GOP leader uttered these words, voices from the party's right wing - and from columnists and newspapers that reflect this point of view - were loudly proclaiming that President Bush wasn't being sufficiently cautious in dealing with the Soviets. Some charged Secretary of State James Baker had ``given away the store'' in pre-summit negotiations.

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These critics found impressive support from famous arms negotiator Paul Nitze, who told the breakfast group he saw little benefit to the US from the summit. In ``propping up'' Gorbachev, Mr. Nitze said, the administration took a big risk. He recalled the US experience in trying to prop up the Shah of Iran.

Nitze backed continued efforts to accomplish arms reductions. But he thought this goal should have been pursued by diplomats and not brought to the summit at this time.

Obviously, Republicans are struggling with the ideological direction they should take. Most party members, moderates as well as conservatives, have had difficulty adjusting to a new era of dealing warmly and trustingly with a Soviet leader after having hailed President Reagan's branding of the Soviet Union as ``the evil empire.''

Mr. Bush has now gone beyond Reagan's dictum, ``trust but verify.'' In working out agreements with Gorbachev, most notably the chemical-arms cutbacks, the President said, in effect, ``we trust you.'' He didn't add, ``but verify.''

Both Reagan, in his later dealings with Gorbachev, and Bush have jumped far ahead of their party in shaping the country's foreign-policy line. To the chagrin of many Democrats, these presidents have stolen what they regarded as theirs: the peace issue.

The GOP right wing is dragging its feet on this foreign policy shift. But they are coming along. Reservations aside, politicians of the right are well aware of the public push and support for global peace.

One conservative in step with Bush's trusting approach in dealing with Gorbachev is HUD's Jack Kemp. Mr. Kemp recently said he could not join those who wanted ``a return to a fortress America.'' He said the Republicans should be out front in seeking to infuse Russia government and society with American ideals. Indeed, Kemp advocates this spreading of US idealism into the Russian way of life as the GOP's ``big issue'' - replacing the communist bashing of the past.

There are great ironies in the Gorbachev-related fallout on US politics. Part of Bush's record-breaking high in popularity comes from the considerable support of Democrats, many of whom applaud his pursuit of peace. Democrats tend to attribute this startling development to Gorbachev, rather than Bush. But they recognize that the Republican President, to their astonishment, is an active participant in building peace.

It's ironical that while Democrats can argue they were way out in front in pursuing a nuclear cutback - remember their ``nuclear-arms freeze'' of several years back? - the voters won't listen. They can also contend that back when they were the first to advocate cooperative efforts with the Soviets, the Republicans whacked them. Again, no one will listen.

Global peace has broken out during Reagan's, and now Bush's, watch. They helped it along. And now they and the Republican party are the beneficiaries. Ironically, many Republicans are uncomfortable with this legacy, and with their new big issue.

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