These are trying times for some Reagan conservatives in Washington. In the House, Reagan efforts to win military aid for Nicaraguan rebels were slapped down. In the Senate, higher budgets for the military were defeated. Abroad, the White House embargo against Nicaragua has won little support.
Is the tide of Reagan conservatism ebbing? Or are conservatives again on the verge of new victories even greater than in President Reagan's first term?
Conservatives in Washington have mixed views. One Republican close to the White House says he is glum about the slow start the President has made on the budget, on tax reform, and on some key foreign policy issues.
Others, however, argue that great things lie just ahead. Terry Dolan, chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), scoffs at those who worry about the recent setbacks on Capitol Hill. ``Utter, unmitigated nonsense,'' he calls it, adding:
``Ronald Reagan is such an incredible political figure that he can regain the political momentum tomorrow if he wants to.''
Mr. Dolan relishes the pitched, partisan battles now being waged on Capitol Hill. He says, ``Conservatives should be very encouraged. Losing the contra battle [for $14 million in military aid to Nicaraguan rebels] was good for this administration. Now they have the perfect excuse to go back and say, `This is shameful. This Congress voted for communist control of Central America.' ''
Dolan and his allies prefer a head-on clash with liberals on Capitol Hill. For years they smoldered with disgust over the compromise and accommodation approach favored during the first Reagan term by White House chief of staff James Baker III. The new chief of staff, Donald Regan, does a much better job of listening to conservative views, Dolan says.
Even so, others with conservative credentials are less happy with what is happening in Congress. Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation worries that recent losses on the budget could be ``a missed opportunity of major dimensions.''
Mr. Butler says that this is the time for pruning unnecessary programs, sending programs back to state and local governments, and turning other federal activities over to the private sector.
If that cannot be done now, in the wake of Reagan's 49-state victory in 1984, when can it be done? he wonders. ``Certainly 1986 looks even less promising due to the elections coming up that year.''
Again, however, other conservatives argue with that view. Jack Abramoff, executive director of Citizens for America, a pro-Reagan lobbying group, says: ``I disagree completely.'' He explains:
``We've already won a tremendous victory on the MX missile. Doom was being predicted just two weeks before that vote. On the contras, even after they won, the Democrats said the thing is not over. That shows tremendous fear of the President. On the budget, . . . things are sailing along. We have a strategy.'' Mr. Abramoff predicts a complete reversal by the House on contra aid. He cites the change in thinking that has rapidly taken place in Congress: ``Last year, the question in Congress was, `Are the Sandinistas good or bad?' In April, it was, `The Sandinistas are bad, but should we help the contras?' In May, it is, `How
much should we help the contras, and what kind of help?' By fall it will be, `How much more help can we give them?' ''
Some conservatives now predict the White House will push for even more than $14 million in aid as early as June. To that they would add $28 million next fall. There is even talk now on Capitol Hill of a $100 million package this fall.
Despite such optimism, a wide range of conservatives say there have been blunders by the new Reagan team. NCPAC's Dolan, for example, calls the White House decision to support cuts in social security COLAs a ``political mistake. . . . Reagan promised not to cut it, and he shouldn't have done it.''
Butler blames the White House for putting Republican congressmen on the spot on issues like social security, Amtrak subsidies, student loans, and others. President Reagan failed to do the proper spadework, he says.
Butler explains that in the first term, many of the Reagan cuts were in programs that didn't touch the Republican-voting middle class. But the 1986 White House budget takes a big swing at middle-class programs. The effect, he says, has been to force Republican congressmen to choose between higher spending for defense, or cutbacks in sensitive programs like social security.
``This kind of choice drives a wedge right into the middle of the Republican constituency'' and helps explain Reagan's recent loss on the defense vote in the Senate, Butler says.