WASHINGTON — WHY did President Bush lose the White House? Who was to blame? Disheartened by their first loss in 16 years, Republicans point accusing fingers at a broad array of suspects, including:
* The "liberal" news media, which hammered President Bush on the economy.
* Ross Perot, who attracted millions of disgruntled Republicans to his side.
* Patrick Buchanan, who divided Republicans by challenging and embarrassing Mr. Bush in the primaries.
* Pat Robertson, the Christian broadcaster and political activist who helped give the GOP national convention an exclusionary, right-wing flavor.
* Lawrence Walsh, the Iran-contra special prosecutor, who helped derail Bush's comeback bid at the last moment by reviving accusations that Bush knew all about the arms-for-hostages swap.
* The Bush political team, which ran a "lousy" campaign, according to Lyn Nofziger, a former aide to Ronald Reagan.
Mostly, however, Republican activists are blaming Bush. The president and his team of White House "pragmatists" abandoned true Reaganism, raised taxes, increased regulations to record levels, destroyed jobs, and forfeited America's highest political prize, they say.
The result: Washington has become "occupied enemy territory," as David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, puts it. In January, Democrats will take control of both the White House and Congress for the first time since 1980.
In the wake of the GOP's loss, conservative Burton Pines of the National Center for Public Policy Research predicts facetiously there will be "5,000 meetings in the next three or four weeks" to figure out what went wrong. The meetings may not settle much, but they will be a catharsis for the Republican faithful.
Mr. Pines says Bush's defeat saddened him, but it was no surprise. He puts responsibility squarely in the president's lap.
"Many conservatives [warned] Bush that he was heading for reelection disaster," Pines says. "Many conservatives pleaded with George Bush to change course and to re-embrace the `Reaganaut' policies and populism that won three presidential elections. By refusing to do this, George Bush and his White House aides broke faith with America's conservative majority."
Already, some Republicans worry that the worst may not be over, that another loss could loom in 1996. Their greatest concern: President-elect Bill Clinton, "a liberal in disguise," will steal their thunder. They call it their "nightmare scenario."
Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster and consultant, says if Mr. Clinton "cuts spending, passes a line-item veto, and doesn't raise income taxes," he will "really preempt Republican arguments."
Conservative activist Floyd Brown - the man who helped produce the famous Willie Horton ad in 1988 - says Clinton made 160 promises during the campaign, including "a lot of great conservative proposals."
Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota says Clinton spoke in favor of the balanced-budget amendment, free trade with Mexico, the line-item veto, the death penalty, getting tough with China, and intervention in what was once Yugoslavia - "all messages that Ronald Reagan would probably have been running on if he ran in 1992." Republicans now should hold Clinton to those promises, Mr. Weber says.
Yet Pines says that if Clinton embraces these elements of conservatism, he has an opportunity to do for Democrats what Dwight Eisenhower did for Republicans in the 1950 - lay the foundations for future victories.
Pines says: "[Clinton] now has the chance to build a majoritarian Democratic Party, if he realizes that Ronald Reagan was not a fluke, that there was a conservative tide in the country."
Though the next election is still 48 months away, various Republican factions already are reaching for the tiller, trying to steer the party in different directions.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, which is affiliated with the Rev. Mr. Robertson, says it was the economy, not abortion or other social issues, that brought Bush down. Mr. Reed notes that Reagan ran on the same social platform shared by Bush, and won easily. "The pro-life plank and the pro-family message of this party was not what cost George Bush this election," he noted in a recent broadcast interview.
Yet there are large segments of the Republican Party that say the hard-line social message of Robertson, Buchanan, and others, such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, may push the GOP too far to the right in the eyes of the voting public.
Mr. Fabrizio says: "Pat Robertson could become our Jesse Jackson," a reference to the Democrats' best-known preacher-politician. Fabrizio says if Robertson becomes symbolic of the Republican Party's policies, the GOP could lose its support from moderates.
While social conservatives and economic conservatives jockey for position, some Republicans are more sanguine about their loss.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas says Bush was really right on the issues, but failed to get his message across. Rep. Susan Molinari (R) of New York sees the loss philosophically, suggesting that after 12 years of Republican rule, the pendulum swung back to the left.
Fabrizio, however, emphasizes Clinton's political skills in pulling out this victory, despite many handicaps. "The difference between '88 and '92 was staggering," he says. "No question about it. Clinton ran a first-rate campaign."