The rebuffed New Right

Is the impact of America's New Right waning? There is some clear evidence that it is and, if so, that is a reassuring political development for thoughtful conservatives and for the United States. Reassuring because the New Right has been making a bad name for conservatism. Reassuring, also, because a democratic , pluralistic nation does better when it does not lunge to extremes of either left or right but sticks to a more moderate, centrist course that makes possible consensus and compromise. The American people apparently sense this to be so.

The New Right - a crusading coalition of ultraconservative groups - emerged on the scene in 1980 with considerable vigor and determination. Many thought the phenomenon might herald a resurgence of ultraconser-vatism in the US and a retreat from the centrist Democratic and Republican rule of recent decades. Indeed the far right coalition defeated four leading Democratic senators, and in the early months of President Rea-gan's administration it seemed that no policy could be enunciated, no appointment made, no political step taken without bowing to its advocates in Congress, led by Sen. Jesse Helms.

Yet two years later it appears that the New Right oversold its power - as extremist movements often do. It failed to push through social legislation, such as bills banning court-ordered busing, sanctioning prayer in public schools, opposing abortion, and curbing the authority of the federal courts to rule on certain issues. The right-wing social agenda in effect ran up against a majority backlash. Once the American Civil Liberties Union and even traditional conservative voices like Barry Goldwater woke up to what was happening and went into action, the social agenda fell apart for lack of support.

Then came the 1982 election and an opportunity to test just how far right the American electorate wanted to go. Not very far. Despite a massive financial effort ($5 million), the National Conservative Political Action Committee - NCPAC or ''Nick-pack,'' as it is called - failed to defeat all but one of the candidates it had targeted. Democrats Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, John Melcher of Montana, and Quentin Burdick of North Dakota all won, NCPAC's negative advertising notwithstanding. In Tennessee Republican Robin Beard was unable to enlist the religious fundamentalists and others against the reelection of Democrat Jim Sasser. In North Carolina, Mr. Helms's territory, a number of ideological colleagues lost their bid for House seats. Conservatives who did win across the country, meantime, were usually not identified with the New Right.

This does not necessarily spell the demise of the radical right, which promises renewed efforts to expand the movement. Americans should remain alert. All people are entitled to believe what they want on any of these issues. They have a right to promote their point of view. They certainly have a right to be concerned about what is regarded as an alarming decline in moral values. But the question is whether they should be able to impose these views on society at large when there is not an underlying consensus for them - and in some cases to do so by misrepresentation, false accusation, and other reprehensible political tactics that belie the very rectitude that most ultraconservatives espouse.

Conservative values continue to deserve an important place in the American political spectrum just as classical liberal values do. True conservatism seeks to preserve what is constructive and effective. It is not, however, oblivious to shifting social conditions or resistant to change. Nor is it self-righteous and mean-spirited.

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